Press freedom under attack
World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, recognises the vital role played by freedom of expression in enabling access to all other human rights, and the need to respect press freedom and ensure the safety of journalists. But the reality is that in many countries journalists are subjected to harassment and intimidation, detention and violence, including lethal violence. In 2022, record numbers of journalists were detained, and increasing numbers were killed. There’s a vital need to uphold press freedom and ensure independent media are free to do their essential work of promoting democratic debate, reporting on rights violations, exposing corruption and holding power to account.
Journalism shouldn’t be a dangerous profession – but too often it is, and not only for journalists working in war zones. Journalists are facing risk when they work in countries under authoritarian rule or where extremist groups and organised crime gangs have sway, and when they cover issues deemed to be sensitive or uncover uncomfortable truths that annoy powerful people.
In Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, many media outlets have been banned, dissolved or blocked, journalists have been threatened, attacked and arrested, and women have largely vanished from the airwaves. In Russia, since the start of its war on Ukraine, the few remaining independent newspapers, news sites and TV and radio stations have been forced to close or pushed into exile. Telling the truth is now criminalised as spreading fake information and journalists reporting on anti-war protests have been harassed, assaulted and detained. In Iran, as mass protests erupted following the death of Mahsa Amini last year, numerous journalists were detained for reporting on the protests and the issues they raised.
These are just a few of too many examples: media freedoms are under attack in country after country, and the attacks follow similar patterns. In CIVICUS’s analysis of civic space conditions in 2022, the single most documented civic space violation was the harassment of activists and journalists. Attacks on and detention of journalists also featured among the top 10 global violations.
Harassment and intimidation
Harassment has the intended impact of discouraging journalists and deterring them from doing their work, including by fuelling self-censorship. It comes in many forms, including threatening messages, online hatred, police questioning, threats of prosecution and home searches and office raids. State agencies and officials can mobilise harassment, but so can anti-rights groups, private companies and other non-state sources.
In El Salvador, under the rule of populist authoritarian president Nayib Bukele, attacks are coming from the top. Bukele and his allies have consistently vilified critical journalists. Dissent has been stifled through public vilification by high-ranking public officials, threats of reprisals against journalists, surveillance of media outlets’ offices and journalists, the obstruction of journalistic work, intimidation and criminalisation.
Tunisia’s slide away from democracy has predictably come with a deterioration of media freedoms, including through smear campaigns against journalists, detentions and violence against media workers covering protests. When the country held its flawed referendum to confirm President Kais Saied’s sweeping new powers, some journalists were prevented from reporting on voting and experienced harassment.
Harassment often comes in return for asking questions those in power would rather not face. Malick Konaté, a journalist in Mali, was targeted for taking part in a TV documentary on the presence in the country of Russian mercenaries from the secretive Wagner Group – a sensitive subject since the government denies mercenaries have been deployed. In punishment, Konaté received numerous threats, including death threats, and military officers visited his home.
It has been very exhausting: judicial harassment and criminal prosecution have wearing effects.
In increasingly authoritarian Bangladesh, journalists are targeted under the highly restrictive Digital Security Act, a sweeping law designed to offer a pretext for harassment. Even exile is no escape: families of journalists who’ve fled Bangladesh for their safety are subject to harassment and intimidation. Nusrat Sharin Raka, sister of exiled journalist Kanak Sarwar, has been targeted with extensive police questioning, detention and concocted charges.
Harassment is particularly targeted at women journalists and those from other excluded groups. Belgian journalist Samira Attilah has been the target of racially and sexually charged social media and phone threats made by anti-vaccine protesters. Bolivian journalist Wendy Roca Hidalgo received sexual violence and death threats in backlash for her reporting on femicides, an experience all too common for women reporters around the world.
Voices from the frontline
Guatemala is hostile ground for independent media. A climate of intimidation, harassment and violence has forced many journalists to leave the country. Those who’ve stayed have been vilified, criminalised, judicially harassed and jailed on spurious charges.
Community journalist Carlos Ernesto Choc shares his story of criminalisation and judicial persecution.
Mine has been a case of judicial persecution that has been used to attempt to silence me. It started in 2017 when I was investigating the pollution of Lake Izabal. I was documenting protests by fishers against mining and I captured the exact moment when a protester was killed by shots fired by the National Civil Police. The accusation against me came from the mining company, Solway Investment Group – a Russian-owned company based in Switzerland. In August 2017, a warrant for my arrest was issued. One hearing after another was postponed so only in January 2019 could I finally give testimony before the court, as a result of which I was handed an alternative measure to prison.
When you have an alternative measure to imprisonment you are free under certain conditions: you are forced to visit the Public Prosecutor’s Office every 30 days to sign in and forbidden to be in any place where alcoholic drinks are sold, among other things. The security forces, the police, the authorities are watching where you are and waiting for you to commit a breach to be able to prosecute you. I see these alternative measures as forms of punishment that imply restrictions and limitations on your right to inform and be informed.
In January 2022, I was criminally prosecuted again, under accusations by the National Civil Police of instigating violence during a protest by Indigenous communities in Izabal against the country’s largest active open-pit mine, owned by Solway’s subsidiary Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel. Thirteen police officers accused me of having physically assaulted them, when all I was doing was documenting the moment when security forces repressed people with teargas.
Since then I could not continue doing my job as a journalist, nor move around freely, until my lawyers managed to prove to the judge that I really am a journalist and not a criminal. In September, the charges against me were dropped. It has been very exhausting: judicial harassment and criminal prosecution have wearing effects.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Carlos. Read the full interview here.
A continuum of violence
Harassment can help prepare the ground for an escalation to physical violence.
In the Americas, for example, CIVICUS documented physical attacks on journalists and media outlets in at least 17 countries in 2022. Offices of media companies were subjected to attacks involving arson, explosives or guns in several countries, including Argentina, Colombia and Honduras.
Violence often comes as a tactic to try to stop media workers reporting on protests. Several journalists were attacked by security forces when covering protests in Guatemala. Similarly in Kazakhstan, where protests triggered by a fuel price increase were repressed with lethal violence, journalists were attacked, leaving some injured. Journalists were beaten and detained in the repression of Sri Lanka’s extensive protests to demand a change of government during 2022.
Anti-rights groups also mobilise violence against journalists covering protests. A protest organised by the far-right Alternative for Germany party last October saw journalist Armilla Brandt physically attacked and subjected to sexualised threats. This was one of several such attacks on journalists seen in Germany during protests by anti-vaccine and far-right groups.
In several countries deadly violence has been unleashed. The Committee to Protect Journalists assesses that 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, an increase of almost 50 per cent from 2021. Mexico once again claimed the notorious position of being the country, outside war zones, with the most journalists killed, with the final tally standing at 13 deaths. Mexican journalists held multiple protests to demand justice and the introduction of urgent measures to protect their safety.
The year 2022 was deadly for members of the press. At least 67 journalists and media workers were killed during the year–the highest number since 2018 and an almost 50% increase from 2021.— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) January 24, 2023
Read more in CPJ's latest report on journalists killed in 2022:https://t.co/9tbuUnpfOK pic.twitter.com/4n6SdkGpmD
The dangers of disinformation
The very difficult working environment for journalists is often made even harder by the rise of online disinformation. This has the impact of making it almost impossible to establish the truth. The burgeoning of disinformation means pretty much anything can be disputed, facts can be rejected and journalists can be vilified as agents of propaganda and servants of imagined conspiracies. Many governments have responded by introducing laws against ‘fake news’ but a lot of these are ill-intentioned and designed not to stop the spread of disinformation but the sharing of facts that contradict official narratives.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories soared under the pandemic, souring every area of public discourse, from vaccines to climate change to gender and racial issues, normalising hate speech and extremist ideas.
In 2022, disinformation played a huge role in elections in countries as diverse as Brazil, Philippines and South Korea. It’s helping keep anti-war sentiment in check in Russia, promoting the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism of India’s ruling party and keeping Trumpism alive in the USA.
This growth of disinformation is intentional, even though much of it may be shared unwittingly. Powerful authoritarian states are pumping out disinformation to sow polarisation in democracies and foster confusion over their rights violations, such as Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and China’s systematic abuses in Xinjiang. These are the same states that employ client media as their official mouthpieces, further muddying the waters between journalism and propaganda.
Civil society and independent media are often the target of disinformation and the hate speech it enables, particularly when they come from or stand for the rights of excluded groups. Disinformation is pervasive in the pushback against women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights.
The tech industry clearly isn’t up to the challenge of dealing with the problem, not least because it thrives on it: its algorithms get people hooked by feeding them increasingly extreme and simplistic content that reinforces their pre-existing views, distorts their perspectives and isolates them from diverse viewpoints.
Fact-checking initiatives are only a first step and are eclipsed by the sheer scale of the task. The challenge remains of forging a joined-up, multifaceted global effort to counter disinformation, bringing together civil society and independent media – which must include better regulation of the social media and tech industry, developed through participatory processes and including safeguards for freedom of expression.
Journalists behind bars
A dismal new record was set in 2022, when the number of jailed journalists reached a new recorded high, standing at 363. Journalists may be detained for covering protests or reporting on topics governments would rather go unreported, such as corruption, presidential abuses of power and violations of the rights of excluded groups.
I am unable to sleep due to fear. Every time there is a knock at the door I panic.
During the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, numerous journalists were detained on accusations such as inciting violence, collaborating with the enemy and spreading information in support of rebel groups. The conflict saw Ethiopia placed second in Sub-Saharan Africa, after totalitarian state Eritrea, for the number of journalists jailed. Journalists were detained for lengthy periods, including because they criticised Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and interviewed people the government objected to.
The military’s crackdown on protests for democracy in Sudan, prior to the current outbreak of fighting between rival military forces, also saw multiple journalists detained. Myanmar’s military junta is another that has detained scores of journalists.
Israeli forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories not only keep journalists in detention; they have a habit of extending detention periods just days before the term is due to end. Last September they renewed the detention of journalist Bushra Al-Taweel for another three months for the third time in a row. In November, they did the same to another journalist, Amer Abu Arafah, a few days before he was due to be released.
Voices from the frontline
Pakistan has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practise journalism. The government and highly powerful military use all the tools at their disposal against journalists who expose human rights violations and corruption, from harassment, detention and abduction to violence and murder.
Writer and journalist Syed Fawad Ali Shah shares his story of persecution, exile and detention.
In 2011, I was kidnapped in Islamabad by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), precisely for raising my voice for the freedom of people forcibly disappeared by the ISI.
The ISI kept me in a secret, black hole-type jail for three months and 18 days. They released me on the condition that I quit journalism, leave the country, or work as a spy for them. I told them I would quit journalism.
To save my life, I kept my word. The ISI freed me in April. In June, I was wounded in a bomb blast in Peshawar. After my name was published in a local newspaper, the ISI called me threateningly, accusing me of starting journalism again. I told them that I had not; I just happened to be there. In August, I reluctantly left my country. I travelled to Thailand and a few days later I arrived in Malaysia, where I was granted refugee status.
As a refugee registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), I experienced many hardships. UNHCR cardholders are sometimes arrested in Malaysia, so I lived in fear of being deported back to Pakistan.
In 2016, UNHCR Malaysia referred my resettlement case to the United States Refugee Admissions Program through the International Rescue Committee (IRC). However, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refused to resettle me in the USA due to alleged security issues. I applied for reconsideration in 2016 but did not hear back from the DHS until June 2022.
From 2016 to 2022, I waited for a response from the US government that never came. I finally asked the IRC to send my case file back to UNHCR Malaysia. I wrote hundreds of times to UNHCR Malaysia requesting resettlement in a safe country but got no response. Other who became refugees after me were resettled by UNHCR, but I was stuck there.
On 23 August 2022, I was abducted by Malaysian immigration officials in a joint operation with the Pakistani ISI in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur. They took me to the Immigration Headquarters in Putrajaya, where they locked me up in the basement. On 25 August they put a black hood over my face and took me to the airport. Before taking me to the airport, they gave me a drug, saying it was for COVID-19, after which I fell unconscious. At the airport they removed the black hood and put me on a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Islamabad, with two ISI officers at either side.
When I arrived, the ISI sent me to an unknown prison in Islamabad without entering my data in the Federal Investigation Agency’s immigration system. I was detained for six months, during which time the Pakistani government did not acknowledge I was in Pakistan. But in March 2023, Malaysia’s Home Affairs minister finally acknowledged I had been deported and this was reported by international media.
The authorities couldn’t hide me for longer and eventually handed me over to the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cybercrime wing, who slapped me with two fake charges under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. After I received temporary bail, the judge was pressured by FIA’s cybercrime wing to fabricate further cases against me, so I am constantly afraid that the court will send me to jail.
Due to pressure from Pakistani security agencies, my passport has been blocked for 10 years, and my name has been added to the Integrated Border Management System of Immigration, forcing me to change location every day. I am unable to sleep due to fear. Every time there is a knock at the door I panic. My heart beats fast all the time and I have fallen ill many times.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Syed. Read the full interview here.
Grounds for hope
Some recent political shifts have brought hope. In the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the USA, outright government hostility towards independent media has given way to more respectful approaches towards press freedoms. Most recently, Fiji’s new government scrapped the restrictive Media Industry Development Act, under which a highly interventionist regulator had sweeping powers to fine and jail journalists, fuelling self-censorship.
The vital role of independent media has been recognised by civil society in Ukraine, which since the start of the war has worked to keep information flowing, including by helping provide protective gear and replacement equipment and supporting relocation when required. In doing so, it’s helping offer a vital corrective to Russian disinformation.
Support for media and journalists isn’t needed only in war zones. Around the world, there remains an urgent need to protect the rights of media workers and ensure their safety.
Civil society should make common cause with media workers wherever they’re under attack. Activists and journalists often face similar threats from the same sources. They both rely on the same civic space to exist and thrive. And without independent media asking the right questions, supplying verified information, exposing wrongdoing and human rights violations and calling the powerful to account, there’s no hope for the democracy civil society strives for.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States must refrain from vilifying, prosecuting or criminalising media workers or interfering with journalistic work in any way.
States must ensure the safety of media workers, including by establishing well-resourced protection mechanisms and ending impunity for crimes against journalists.
Civil society should work with independent media to defend press freedoms and call out violations.
Cover photo courtesy of Carlos Ernesto Choc