Dangerous News: How press freedom deteriorates as journalists face growing threats around the world

By Charley Steur

From dictatorships to democracies: hostility towards the media is spreading. Journalists around the world are threatened by government censorship, organized crime and by commercial pressures caused by the growth of the internet. The sheer brutality of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi only this month, highlights the vulnerable state of journalists and media freedom worldwide.

 “The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events,” Khashoggi wrote in his column, lamenting the lack of press freedom in the Arab world. “More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices” [1].

Khashoggi exiled himself to the United States in June 2017 and started writing a regular column for the Washington Post. His columns criticized the Saudi government for allowing women to drive while the women who campaigned for that reform remained in prison. The columns also criticized  the county’s brutal human rights violations in Yemen, and the use of the death penalty against political dissidents. Khashoggi was allegedly killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Almost two weeks later, Turkish and Saudi officials  conducted a joint investigation of the consulate, some portions of which had reportedly recently been repainted [2].

Unfortunately, this is not a stand-alone case. The Committee to Protect Journalists warned that there has “never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist” [3,4]. The threats are extensive: extrajudicial executions, hostage taking by both government and non-state actors, state-sanctioned surveillance, prosecution under obscure laws, public smear campaigns and more. Reporters around the world have been accused of terrorism, targeted as enemies of the people, and subjected to opaque and (sometimes secret) legal proceedings.

In Myanmar for example, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison last September, after over eight months of trial and detention. They were convicted under a colonial-era law drafted by the British to suppress the colonized, and now abused to suppress freedom of the press and escape accountability. The journalists were set up by the police, only because they dared to investigate and expose the atrocities committed by the Myanmar security forces against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine. Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a steadfast advocate for the free press, has been unmoved by calls to intervene, or even criticize the court case [5].

In Mexico, drug cartels and corrupt government officials have used grotesque acts of violence to silence journalists reporting on the country’s drug war, and the number of journalists who have been killed, imprisoned or have disappeared has risen steadily [6].

Meanwhile, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the past two years. Out of the record high 262 journalists that were jailed because of their work last year, 73 of them were incarcerated in Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists [7].

For those not already charged or jailed, it creates a dramatic disincentive to investigate and report sensitive stories. The government’s crackdown on media has created a climate of fear that has led many journalists to censor their own work, a reasonable option considering those who offend the government often pay a stiff price.

The freedom of the media globally is further threatened by the rise of the internet, because online content is controlled by a handful of internet companies whose processes lack transparency. Moreover, commercial pressure on news providers has led to redundancies and cuts in investment. On top of that, the “vast majority of countries”, including China, restricts access to a range of websites.

Another troubling trend consists of increasing efforts to delegitimize and intimidate the press in countries with traditions of democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump has branded the media  an “enemy of the American people,” and his attacks on “fake news” are sending a message to authoritarian leaders that it is acceptable to crack down on the press [8].

Often viewed as the cradle of the free press, this past year alone we have witnessed the assassinations of journalists in Europe. Investigative journalist Daphne Carauna Galizia was assassinated in Malta in October 2017; four months later, Ján Kuciak was shot dead alongside his girlfriend in Slovakia [9,10].

Political leaders across Europe have sought to undermine the legitimacy of journalism by lambasting reporting into corruption and human rights abuses as foreign propaganda. These same leaders have accused journalists of being liars who can’t be trusted while promoting their own state-sponsored media as the only trustworthy source of news. Citizens of these countries are losing access to honest, credible journalism, forced to rely on government mouthpieces instead.

Never have we seen such calculated campaigns of misinformation targeting the media from positions of authority. It has never been so easy for powerful people to undermine the work of journalists. Just as press freedom is an attribute of democracy, its repression and censorship should be indicative of its decline, which threatens to dismantle the entire system.

Journalists should be protected by the law and keep authorities accountable. It is more important than ever for journalists to stand together to protect each other and to protect the integrity of their profession. In the words of Khashoggi: “Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face” [11].


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jamal-khashoggi-what-the-arab-world-needs-most-is-free-expression/2018/10/17/adfc8c44-d21d-11e8-8c22-fa2ef74bd6d6_story.html?utm_term=.04d9afe4c003

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/24/turkish-police-likely-to-mount-second-search-of-saudi-consuls-home

[3] https://cpj.org/campaigns/free-the-press/

[4] Moreover,  Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), recently launched its 2018 Press Freedom Index

[5] Read the backstory of the two journalists here: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-rakhine-events/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/04/journalists-mexico-press-freedom-photographer-ruben-espinosa-murder

[7] https://cpj.org/campaigns/free-the-press/

[8] https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-media-is-enemy-of-the-american-people

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/daphne-caruana-galizia

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45684062 

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jamal-khashoggi-what-the-arab-world-needs-most-is-free-expression/2018/10/17/adfc8c44-d21d-11e8-8c22-fa2ef74bd6d6_story.html?utm_term=.04d9afe4c003


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