Democracy at Stake: the fragile state of press freedom in 2019

On the 19th of march, the activities committee of the JASON Institute for Peace and Security Studies invited two guest speakers to critically discuss the implications of limited press freedom around the world, and what things are to be done to tackle the problems associated with issues like journalist persecution, government interference with access to information, and the more general risks associated with investigative journalism.

The first guest speaker is Maarten Visser, who is a Policy and Advocacy Officer at Free Press Unlimited (FPU). This non-governmental organization believes that access to quality and independent information can save lives. Their mission is therefore to make and keep independent information accessible for everybody on the planet. To accomplish this mission, Free Press Unlimited is active in over 43 countries to promote their cause and defend press freedom. Mr. Visser informed everybody at the event about the goals and workings of this non-governmental organization by giving examples about the ways in which PFU tries to empower and guard journalists in their daily activities.

First, FPU tries to protect journalists and support press freedom though immediate legal and material support. Due to their close contact with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, FPU can offer official legal advice and judicial support for journalists in the different countries where they operate. Also, FPU can often offer journalist who are in a dire situation the materials they need for their investigations upon request, this ranges from photographical equipment to document access.

The second way in which FPU offers support though the creation of an enabling environment. This means that FPU tries to advocate different themes, like disinformation and the impunity of government officials arbitrarily persecuting journalists. However, FPU also collaborates with different universities to research different cases involving press freedom and the proliferation of information. And last but certainly not least, FPU engages with local media actors in the countries where they operate to enable these to overcome the challenges that are posed by their national governments or non-governmental actors having an interest in limiting certain investigations and provisions of information.

After this elaboration on the workings of the FPU and how they try to protect the freedom of press, the second speaker took over and would talk about the different challenges faced by investigative journalists in conflict ridden countries and the global south. Mr. Opoka, our second guest speaker and journalist for Onfile, has written for The Guardian and has been forced to leave his native South-Sudan due to insecurity and prosecution.

Journalists face difficult situations in many countries around the globe, but to report from and on a country in conflict enhances the risks substantially. Due to this high risk of persecution and even physical insecurity, Mr. Opoka started his talk with stating that stories are not worth dying for, exemplifying his experiences where he has seen and known people who got shot and tortured for investigating sensitive topics. During his talk Mr. Opoka gave several examples of the South-Sudanese government interfering with investigations of journalists and most notably the securitization of information by the head of state. Even when legislation was announced to incorporate more press freedom and protection for journalists, the government made the documents disappear and amended the legislation proposal to exclude these protections in the governments favour.

These examples gave insights on how harsh the conditions are for journalists and reporters in conflict situations and authoritarian regimes. Polarization among journalists is the norm, either you are on the side of the government in power, or you are on the dissenting side. Mr. Opoka reaffirmed that critique on state policy is not tolerated and a lot of journalists, like himself, have fled the country for safety reasons, and the western media does not contribute positively on the relationship between local media agencies and their communities. Opoka argued that western media often only request stories or reports on conflict issues or governmental developments. The foreign media does not pay attention to ordinary developments on a smaller scale, for example; when a certain agriculture technique is used to increase crop growth, western media are relatively uninterested. This increases the distance between community and media, therefore making the community doubt the intentions of the media and seeing them as biased.

Even so-called neutral aid agencies trying to increase the development and decrease the inequality in these developing countries are guilty of indirectly increasing polarization and limiting press freedom, Opoka stated. Giving the example of USAID, which did not want to cooperate in investigation or reports that would undermine their relationship with the South-Sudanese government, Opoka illustrated the way in which western organization increase the tensions and polarization between impartial journalism and effective governance. Adding to this, Opoka pointed to the increased clientelism between the governments and journalists, who are being offered public office in exchange for halting their investigations, or if they reported what the government instructed them to report, thus ending the impartial nature of journalism.

Mr. Opoka ended this talk with the message that we as students should stay critical of our surroundings and should research in the topics discussed during this event, as this might increase awareness and could hold the perpetrators of press freedom accountable. After Mr. Opoka his talk, the event proceeded with a discussion where students were spurred to ask questions on the elaborations of both Mr. Visser and Mr. Opoka.  

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