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In pursuit of truth: journalists fight back in battle for press freedom

Seven global stories of the rising attacks on reporters and how they joined campaigners to take on hostile governments and online bullies

Adam Bychawski
3 May 2021, 12.00am
Lebanese soldiers attack protesters on 1 May 2020
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Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Early last year, openDemocracy began tracking how governments around the world were responding to the pandemic. Alarmingly, many of them seized the opportunity to crack down on political opponents and consolidate power.

This rollback of human rights also affected press freedom on several continents, from Hungary to South Africa, Russia and the Philippines. Journalists were completely or partly blocked from doing their work in 73% of the 180 countries monitored by the organisation, Reporters Without Borders.

Attacks on journalists take many forms: in Egypt and Iraq, female journalists have been disproportionately targeted on social media, while in Greece, a corporate media monopoly has led to pliant coverage of the government.

Below, we have collated a few stories of resilience in the face of repression. In Russia, a group of student journalists disillusioned by uncritical state media built their own platform from scratch. And a moving series of portraits of journalists killed in Mexico serves as a testament to the changes that their work brought to their communities.

These cases demonstrate that press freedom is not a right exclusively given to those in the profession, but one that we all share. When our governments are held to account for their decisions, we all benefit.

Lebanon’s corrupt government leads a press backlash

Tell Boris Johnson not to weaken political sleaze rules

If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.

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A feminist march in 2019, Beirut | Walid El Houri

In 2019, protests prompted by growing anger and frustration towards political corruption toppled the Lebanese government. Cornered and weakened by a mass movement, the government has intensified its repression of dissent and freedom of expression.

Journalists have been at the sharp end of this clampdown. They have faced threats for reporting not just from the state but also mobs affiliated with the various political parties in power.

Our North Africa, West Asia editor, Walid El Houri, spoke to some of the civil society and activist groups campaigning for freedom of the press.

Women activists in the Middle East face online abuse

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A vigil for the late Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazi | Zein Alabdin Fouad / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The journalist Nawara Negm appeared in reports that were broadcast during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Her interviews during the protests have been described as “instrumental in sustaining and inspiring the revolution”. And yet, search results for her name are littered by comments about her appearance and false accusations.

Like many women journalists in the Middle East, Negm’s outspoken scrutiny of the government has been met with coordinated online trolling campaigns.

Attacking women and feminists who dare to take a position in the public space is becoming common, and is used as a weapon to discourage younger generations from speaking out.

Zaina Erhaim wrote for our gender and sexuality project about her experience as a young journalist in Syria, where she faced constant discrimination.

Mexico’s lost journalists

Between 2000 and 2020, more than 100 journalists were killed in Mexico. Only Afghanistan and Syria, both countries at war, have recorded more deaths of journalists. As a result, investigations into organised crime, poverty, corruption, dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ land by multinational companies, as well as the devastation of beaches, jungles and forests, have been cut short. Impunity has prevailed. So far, in more than 99% of cases, there have been no convictions.

This feature tells the story of ten journalists who were killed in the past two decades. Some were investigating drug trafficking, others focused on corruption in the police or the state. These portraits celebrate their work and the tangible benefits and victories that they brought to their communities.

Captured media in Greece

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Protesters in Athens in March 2021 | ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In March, Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of the Athens-based independent newspaper, Documento, tweeted that an arrest warrant had been issued against him. His newspaper had published the full text of a lawsuit lodged against him personally by 22 police officers, with their names on its front page. The policemen were under investigation for the torture of a young activist.

Over the past year, there has been growing anger against police violence and the indifference towards it in mainstream media. Trust in the media among Greeks is low, with many eschewing large outlets for social media. Many point to the lack of independent publishers in an industry dominated by media conglomerates unanimously in favour of Greece’s conservative government.

Although Vaxevanis was not arrested, the scandal exposed how police brutality has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in independent journalism.

Modi’s war on the press

Narendra Modi addresses BJP Save Democracy rally in Durgapur, India, 2019.
Press freedom is in decline under Modi | Hindustan Times/PA. All rights reserved

In January, editors from several independent Indian news outlets were charged with several offences, including sedition and criminal conspiracy. The Caravan, a respected Indian magazine, briefly had its Twitter account blocked on order of the government.

The crackdown came after journalists reported on the death of a protester at a demonstration over new farming laws. It marked a nadir for press freedom in India, which has been in decline since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.

A senior Indian editor explains how impartial journalism has come under threat and two Caravan staff writers explain how they are fighting back.

Growing hostility to journalism in the UK

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Michael Gove has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit | Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

In the starkly competitive and politically divided world of UK media, it’s rare to see newspapers agree on much. That’s why it speaks volumes that editors from across Fleet Street signed our campaign calling for an investigation into a secretive Whitehall ‘clearing house’ that is intervening in Freedom of Information requests from journalists.

The FOI clearing house is just one symptom of a growing hostility towards journalism from the government, which has launched baseless attacks against journalists for merely asking questions and refused to answer questions from unsupportive media outlets.

Russia targets young journalists

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DOXA editors Natalya Tyshkevich, Armen Aramyan, Tatyana Kolobakina | Фото: Мария Борисенок

Amid a new wave of protests against the government in Russia, the growing number of young people getting involved has set off panic among authorities. Universities have warned students about participating and Russian police raided the offices and homes of editors of a student magazine.

openDemocracy spoke to the editors of DOXA about what it means to be a young journalist against a backdrop of state repression.

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