Mightier Than The Sword: Safeguarding Press Freedoms

October 30, 2018

The world was stunned this month following the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. A critic of Saudi Arabia and its impulsive autocrat Mohammad Bin Salman, he was last seen entering the Saudi embassy to complete some paperwork, where Turkish investigators allege he was murdered by the order of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

While a significant and egregious example, the wider picture is that the safety of journalists around the world is not secure – including in the west. But it has never been. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that in 2018 so far 28 journalists have been murdered. The average since 1992 has been 32 journalists a year killed for their work.

Journalists do not just face threats from governments. Four journalists and several other members of the Capital Gazette in Maryland, USA were killed by a rogue gunman whose criminal harassment case had been covered by the paper. Mario Leonel Gómez Sánchez covered crime in Mexico and is suspected to have been murdered by members of a drug trafficking gang.

But the link between crime and government can be blurry, and journalists often find themselves at the risk of criminal governmental action. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist, was a fierce critic of government corruption. The top article of her blog, Running Commentary, is “That crook Schembri was in court today, pleading that he is not a crook”. Courts had ordered Galizia’s bank account to be frozen pending libel cases brought against her by senior government officials – blatant legal harassment. While no government officials or politicians have been charged in her case, those she has accused of serious corruption are leading the investigation into her death.

The outright murder of journalists is still, thankfully, rare and not increasing in the long term. The more worrying trend is in press freedom. Never before have Reporters Without Borders classed so many countries as “very bad” for press freedom. The West is also a victim of the decline in freedom, with journalists repeatedly chastised as “spies” or as “enemies of the people” – quotes from Turkey’s Erdogan and America’s Donald Trump respectively. In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman turned up to a news conference with a gun inscribed “for journalists”. And claims of “fake news” have ingrained themselves into our political language and culture.

Never before have Reporters Without Borders classed so many countries as “very bad” for press freedom.

Words are tied with deeds as governments use legal pressures and mobs to suppress journalism. According to Freedom House, “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.”

In Russia, any news agency or NGO with even a modicum of foreign funding is required to register as a “foreign agent”. In addition to having to disclose all funding sources, and label all their work as products of a foreign agent, such organisations are the target of government raids, suspensions, prosecutions and fines. Russian NGO Committee for the Prevention of Torture filed for bankruptcy after receiving $15,300 in fines.

Chad has blocked social media and international news outlets online following the government push for constitutional changes that would allow its president to keep serving beyond his term limit. It is far from the only country blocking the internet to prevent the spread of information. Cameroon blocked the internet for a total of 93 days in 2015-17.

The media is not free around the world, and it is being more restricted each day. Western countries should lead the charge for a free media, encouraging critical speech of the government instead of treating it as a betrayal. They should also push back against countries whose governments cannot handle their populations getting the unedited truth.

– Adam Carruthers


Image from Twitter.com