In December of 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared that May 3rd would be World Press Freedom Day. This came following a recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference in 1991. This in turn was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.
The Windhoek Declaration was the outcome of a long and frank look at the problems of African print media. The declaration shined a light on many examples of the grave issues faced by the African press including censorship, intimidation, and imprisonment.
The UNESCO website explains that World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
In this in depth feature KCW Today examines the state of global press freedom and its causes.
World Press Freedom in Decline
Reporters without Borders (RWB) is an international non-profit, non-governmental organization with consultant status at the United Nations. RWB promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. Their work also includes building the World Press Freedom Index which ranks countries from best to worst in terms of their press freedom. The report for 2018 shows that while some countries maintain consistently high standards of press freedom, others have continued to devolve with more and more countries continuing to move down the rankings in a race to the bottom dominated most consistently by countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea.
UNESCO has also issued a report on global trends for 2017/18 which states that across the world, journalism is under fire from a combination of political polarization and technological change which have facilitated the rapid spread of hate speech, misogyny and ‘fake news’, which often lead government to adopt further restrictions on freedom of expression.
The report explains that in this complex environment, several trends exist to highlight the overall downward trend in media freedom:
A tightening, in some regions, of long-standing modes of limiting media freedom (censorship, legal measures); new limitations associated with national security and anti-terrorism measures; an increase in large-scale disruptions like internet shutdowns; an increase in patterns of surveillance; and an expanding attention to privacy and cybersecurity issues as they affect media freedom.
The leaders of the Free World
Press freedom in the United States is enshrined in the First Amendment to the constitution, but has been under increasing attack over the past few years. Journalists and their devices are routinely scrutinized at the US border, while some foreign journalists are denied entry into the US after covering sensitive topics like Colombia’s FARC or Kurdistan.
Meanwhile there is still no federal “shield law” guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources. Whistleblowers face prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press. The Espionage Act was entered into law shortly after the US entered into First World War and has been amended numerous times over the years.
The Espionage Act made it illegal to convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies. To convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies when the United States is at war, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.
Donald Trump’s presidency has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report. He has declared the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, and routinely uses the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting. He has even called for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses.
The anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the US government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.
Additionally, consolidation of the US media has resulted in 90% of the mass media being owned by only 6 corporations. In the early 1980s, journalist Ben Bagdikian calculated that the majority of US media was held by just 50 corporations, and the number has dropped to only a handful since then. Namely Comcast, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS. Between them they own all of the major cable news outlets.
Sinclair Broadcast Group currently owns 193 local news stations across the US and if a proposed acquisition of Tribune Media goes forward they will own 233 local news stations and have the power to reach over 40% of households in America, effectively ending the idea of local community journalism in the US.
In April it was reported by various media outlets that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) posted a contract request for “Media Monitoring Services,” which will compile a database of hundreds of thousands of journalists, bloggers and “media influencers” for the federal government. After an outcry on social media, a DHS spokesman tweeted “this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media.”
The work request from DHS seeks a firm that has the ability to monitor up to 290,000 global news sources; ability to track media coverage in up to 100 languages and the ability to “track online, print, broadcast, cable, radio, trade and industry publications, local sources, national/international outlets, traditional news sources, and social media.”
The work request also seeks the ability to build lists of journalists based on beat, location, outlet type/size and journalist role. Creating an online “media influence database” is also included.
Big Brother comes to the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, a continued heavy-handed approach towards the press (often in the name of national security) has resulted in the UK keeping its status as one of the worst-ranked Western European countries behind France and Spain in the RWB World Press Freedom Index.
The government began to implement the Investigatory Powers Act, the most severe surveillance legislation in UK history, with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who recently resigned over an immigration scandal regarding the Windrush Generation, repeatedly expressed a desire to restrict encryption tools such as WhatsApp and announced plans to criminalize the repeated viewing of extremist content.
During the 2017 elections, members of the press were denied access to both Conservative and Labor party events, and to the candidates themselves, which set a worrying precedent going forward into future elections.
Not even the best are perfect
According to the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, the country with the most press freedom in the world is Norway. The media are free and journalists are not subject to censorship or political pressure. Violence against journalists and media is rare, although some have been threatened by Islamist fundamentalists in recent years.
However, on the darker side, the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution has criticized the government’s new code of criminal procedure on the grounds that it will not increase protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources because it is not sufficiently clear about the circumstances in which the police are allowed to violate this confidentiality.
Violence against the Media
So far in 2018 we have lost 23 journalists, along with 4 citizen journalists, and 2 media assistants.
April alone saw the deaths of 17 journalists.
10 Journalists were deliberately targeted and killed by the so-called Islamic State. Nine reporters and photographers in a Kabul suicide bombing, and a journalist was also shot dead in the eastern city of Khost.
Here are the names of those who died:
Salimi Ali, Mashal TV. Talash Salim, Mashal TV. Fezi Shah Marai, AFP. Rajabi Noroz Ali, TV1. Rasoli Ghazi, TV1 Cameraman. Darani Maharam, Radio Azadi (Radio Free Europe). Kakeker Sabvon, Radio Azadi (Radio Free Europe). Hananzavi Ebadollah, Radio Azadi (Radio Free Europe). Tokhi Yar Mohammad, ToloNews Cameraman. Ahmad Shah, BBC and Reuters.
In Nicaragua, Ángel Gahona, was shot and killed while live streaming from the scene of demonstrations near the mayor’s office in the eastern Nicaraguan port city of Bluefields.
Two Palestinian journalists, Ahmed Abou Hussein, Radio Shaab, Bisann news and Yaser Murtaja, Ain media were also killed by the Israeli Military while covering the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations. Both men wore protective gear clearly marked with the word “PRESS” on their flak jackets.
Abdullah al-Qadri of Belqees TV, and an AFP contributor was killed in a missile attack by Houthi Rebels in Yemen which targeted journalists. On the same day, a similar incident took place with a crew for Yemen TV being targeted by a Saudi airstrike. Two crew members were killed, Abdullah Najjar and Mohammed Nasser Al Washli.
Finally, April also saw the deaths of two Ecuadorian Journalists and their driver who had been kidnapped in March. Journalist Javier Ortega, photographer Paul Rivas and driver Efrain Segarra were kidnapped on March 26 on the northern border with Colombia, in Esmeraldas, while reporting on a series of violent attacks against Ecuadorian security forces.
In March, Zeeshan Ashraf Butt, working for Pakistank’s Daily Nawa-i-Waqt was murdered while reporting death threats made against him by a local councilman who took exception to questions he asked in an interview.
Two Indian journalists were also killed in March. Navin Nishchal and Vijay Singh of Dainik Bhaskar were killed when their bike was hit by an SUV in Bhojpur in Bihar. Police said the vehicle was driven by a village leader and that a heated argument between him and the reporters over a news report had preceded the incident. A day later, television reporter Sandeep Sharma of News World was run down by a truck in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh. Sharma had told police that he had received threats to his life.
In February Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered along with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova for his work on exposing the ties between government officials and an Italian mafia syndicate accused of defrauding the European Union of subsidy funds.
January saw the death of Mexican Journalist Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez. He was stabbed 21 times while inside his car and in front of family members who were also in the car with him at the time.
Another Yemeni Journalist was killed in January. Mohamed Al-Qadesi was a photojournalist documenting the destruction caused by the ongoing war in Yemen. In addition, citizen journalist Oussama Salem Al-Maqtari was killed in the same strike.
Also in January, Brazilian journalist Jefferson Pureza Lopes was killed in Brazil’s Goiás state, located southwest of Brasilia. Lopes was at his home in Edealina, a town of around 4,000 people, when two men with motorcycles shot him dead as he was watching television, police and news reports said.
According to information gathered by RWB there are known to be 176 journalists are in prison, along with 126 citizen journalists, and 15 media assistants.
The country with the most jailed journalists is Egypt with 27. According to RWB, seven years after the January 2011 revolution, the level of media freedom is abysmal and Egypt is now one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. Some spend years in detention without being charged or tried. Others have been sentenced to long jail terms or even life imprisonment in cruelly unfair mass trials. Under Sisi’s leadership, the authorities have waged a witch-hunt against journalists.
Journalists are obliged on national security grounds to report only the official version of terrorist attacks. Journalists and human rights defenders are banned from much of the Sinai region and from providing independent coverage of any military operation. Coverage of many economic subjects, including inflation and corruption, can also result in imprisonment. More than 400 websites have been blocked since the summer of 2017 and more and more people are being arrested because of their social network posts.
Among the many detained journalists is Al Jazeera reporter Mahmoud Hussein who at the time of this writing has been in detention for more than 500 days without being formally charged. Al Jazeera continues to campaign for his release on their TV channel and website. Hussein is accused of “disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities in order to defame the state’s reputation.”
RWB’s report on China says that 15 journalists are known to be detained. They, along with many bloggers are held in conditions that pose a threat to their lives. Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, both died in 2017 from cancers that were left untreated while they were detained. Under tougher Internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments on a news item that they post on a social network or messaging service or even just for sharing content.
Azerbaijan comes in third with 11 incarcerated journalists according to RWB. In their report on Press Freedom in Azerbaijan, RWB explains that President Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014. Independent journalists and bloggers are thrown in prison if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail, or bribes. Independent media, such as Zerkalo and Azadlig, have been stifled economically. Others, such as Radio Azadlig, have been closed by force. The main independent news websites are blocked. In a bid to silence those who continue to resist in exile, such as Emin Milli and Ganimat Zahid, the authorities harass their family members still in Azerbaijan. The regime has also had Azerbaijani journalists detained in Georgia and Ukraine, and sued in France.
Myanmar has been in the international spotlight for the Rohingya Crisis, but now also because of two investigative journalists from Reuters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested and jailed following their investigative reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.