Global press freedom - a downward spiral

It is not enough to call for journalists not to be assassinated, imprisoned or exiled – these actions are symptoms of a more fundamental failure.

Nik Williams
11 July 2019, 10.47am
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (pictured in 2014), who was killed in Istanbul in October 2018.
Balkis Press/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

2017: Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist investigating endemic corruption in Malta, was murdered by a car bomb. Journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot in India. Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach Velducea were shot in Mexico (in Sinaloa and Chihuahua respectively).

2018: Jan Kuciak (a journalist exploring ties between organised crime and the Slovakian Government) was shot. Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. 13 staff members of Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet were convicted in Turkey following the attempted coup.

2019: The Intercept Brazil’s staff have been threatened due to critical coverage of Bolsonaro’s administration in Brazil. Seydi Moussa Camara and Ahmedou Ould al-Wadea have been arrested in Mauritania during Presidential elections. Two TV stations (Horyaal 24 TV and Eryal TV) in Somaliland have been shut down due to ‘national security’ concerns. Journalist Lyra McKee was murdered at a protest in Northern Ireland. And Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were threatened with imprisonment in the UK for the alleged theft of confidential documents relating to the Loughinisland massacre that suggested collusion between the authorities and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

This is a tiny glimpse into the ongoing and enduring risks to press freedom across the globe. This article is not long enough to give adequate shape or scale to this epidemic, but few countries are immune.

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In 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders, 66 journalists were killed worldwide, while so far in 2019, 174 journalists, 150 citizen journalists and 17 media assistants have been imprisoned during the course of their duties. Beyond this, the work of journalists has been devalued and demonised, opening the door for violence, disinformation and legal restriction against journalists everywhere.

What was previously understood as something that took place in conflict zones or countries with few legal protections and no independent judiciary, has spread to functioning, modern and robust democracies, leaving journalists everywhere at risk in complex and challenging ways. Threats to press freedom do not start and finish with the killing of journalists – the erosion of press freedom starts prior to that, through badly defined laws such as criminal defamation, over-broad national security laws, ‘fake news’ laws and many other laws and repressive regulations that stifle journalism, alongside a more general devaluing of the press – all these contribute to an atmosphere which could lead to the murder or imprisonment of journalists. This is a deadly continuum that leads to an ill-informed public, unopposed corruption and, ultimately, silence.

Threats against journalists do not come out of nowhere. Every murdered, imprisoned or exiled journalist is a policy failure. When there are vested interests, weak legal systems, uninformed populations and rampant corruption, there are threats to journalists who seek to uncover information many would prefer hidden. In Europe we have seen an increase in the murder of journalists many of whom were working to uncover corruption. Corruption and abuses of power require secrecy, opaque systems and weak institutions to flourish, leaving journalists as the sole and necessary checks and balances every democracy needs.

In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has prioritised protecting global press freedom as a key Government strategic goal. Leading human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, after being appointed as the UK special envoy for media freedom stated: “It has never been more dangerous to report the news. Targeting journalists undermines democracy and impedes our ability to hold the powerful to account and it allows countless human rights abuses to take place in the dark. Those with a pen in their hand should not feel a noose round their neck.”

Concerted action is needed, but to properly and adequately protect journalists we need to address larger more systemic issues. We need to strengthen the rule of law, and we need to address the root of corruption, where many governments including the UK are culpable. It is not enough to call for journalists not to be assassinated or imprisoned – these actions are symptoms of a more fundamental failure. Without addressing these failures, journalists will always be at risk.

On 19th July, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh Law School, Saltire Society and the National Union of Journalists, Scottish PEN is bringing together leading journalists, academics, activists and experts at the Scottish Press Freedom Summit 2019. The conference will look at these issues to see how journalists everywhere can be protected and press freedom respected. By addressing the imprisonment and murder of journalists, by looking at how media monopolies, independence and plurality affects the health of media environments and what laws need to be reformed to protect press freedom, we can protect this vital aspect of democracy, the ability to challenge power, have our voices heard and take an active role in the world around us.

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From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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