“Each year, one journalist gets a Pulitzer prize and one hundred get shot.”
This was the message shared by the United Nations on the 2nd of November, a day that has been proclaimed as the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.”
Whilst most of us were probably going about our usual day-to-day business that day, 236 journalists were in prison for the simple act of telling the truth. They are the lucky ones; many of their colleagues have been harassed, kidnapped, beaten or killed. In nine out of ten cases, these crimes against journalists go unpunished. Such impunity is a sign of something more sinister: a decline in press freedom around the world.
The importance of press freedom
Freedom of the press is the principle that communication and expression through various media should be exercised freely and that the journalists who work for these media should be allowed to do their job without fear of prosecution. This is crucial because a free press monitors the actions of the government and therefore holds them accountable if needed. Thus, the press plays a vital role in informing citizens about public and international affairs.
Unfortunately, this right is not globally respected. In fact, media independence is under threat in every region of the world. According to Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), who publishes the World Press Freedom Index every year, only one-quarter of world nations have a “good” or “satisfactory” situation for journalists. That means only 9 percent of humankind lives in a country where press freedom is “good.”
Democracy under attack
What causes these appalling statistics? One of the answers is a decline in democracy. The Press Freedom Index is usually considered to be an indicator of democracy. If press freedom starts to decline, alarm bells start to ring: something is wrong. This observation sometimes suggests that a decline in press freedom leads to a decline in democracy as well. Whilst this is certainly the case, the opposite process is also true: once democracy starts to decline due to an internal or external factor, press freedom will (usually) follow shortly after. Then, as a result, the process will reinforce itself and democracy will further decline.
As of 2018, democracy has been in decline. The Freedom House has recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties all over the world, for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018. The countries affected are under threat by authoritarianism, terrorism and populism – factors that decrease democratic values.
The first factor, authoritarianism – but also state capitalism – poses a threat to democracy because the state directly takes over institutions that are vital to guaranteeing democratic freedom. For some countries that means the state controls the press. In Russia, for example, the state owns and excessively controls more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Such control leads to censorship. The example worth pointing out is the experience of journalist Ilya Rozhdestvensky. On June 24, he had announced his resignation from the RBC news outlet because it refused to publish his investigative report about the existence of a Federal Security Service secret prison near Moscow where authorities used torture tactics against detainees. Rozhdestvensky said his editors rejected the article six times, claiming that it was in the “incorrect format.” A different, non-state-controlled newspaper, then published his article instead.
China is another extreme case, known for its relentless censorship. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government continue to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” When President Xi visited the country’s main media outlets in 2016, he told reporters that they were the “publicity front” of the government and that they must “promote the Party’s will and authority.”
The increase in terrorism – a second factor – also has considerable effects on press freedom. Just like authoritarianism, terrorism aims to weaken and eventually take down the pillars that constitute democracy. Press freedom is usually one of the first pillars to fall.
Back in 2002, a journalist named Daniel Pearl, who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, set out to investigate the 9/11 attacks. Word about his visit got out amongst terrorist circles and so a Pakistan militant named Omar Sheikh saw an opportunity to lure the reporter into a trap. Although Pearl was not the first high-profile journalist to be kidnapped and killed, the way in which it happened was particularly nasty: he was murdered by means of a gruesome beheading. The viral video – which was actually a re-enactment because the camera failed on the first take – was seen by Mohammed as a recruiting tool that he hoped would inspire al-Qaeda followers. It also sent a different message: international journalists were now legitimate targets of terror operations and the goal should be to maximize media attention of such abductions.
Journalists are not only being targeted by terrorists and authoritarian governments. The recent rise in populism is just as influential. Take the United States for example. As of 2016, the country has joined the ranks of “problematic” countries, according to RSF. The reason? Donald J. Trump, who is known for his description of the media as “fake news” or “alternative facts,” became president. Trump has not only attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, but his expressive opinion of the news has led to a considerable decrease in media trust. According to a Gallup Poll, press confidence dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history when Trump first entered the office in 2016: less than one-third of those polled said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, representing a drop of 8 percent from the year before.
Violence, abuse and lack of source protection
The bad news is that things are not improving. In the worldwide movement away from democracy, the most vulnerable institution, arguably, is the free press, and the most disposable people are journalists. The aforementioned Daniel Pearl is only one of the 1174 journalists killed in the last 20 years. Many remember the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015 when 9 media workers of the French satirical magazine were killed and several others were wounded. The recent assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, ordered by the Saudi crown prince, is also still fresh on many minds. These figures are increasing, whilst the number of headlines is decreasing.
Murder is, of course, the ultimate form of censorship. But there are many other ways journalists and reporters might be hindered from doing their work. A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, recently wrote an op-ed about the issue and described the dangers that come with certain assignments. He says his colleagues have suffered from countless injuries, ranging from land mines to car bombs and helicopter crashes. If they were lucky enough to maintain their health, they still risked the danger of being kidnapped or jailed. Yet, they don’t give up; according to Sulzberger the journalists take their work head-on. “When militants attacked a Nairobi mall, you could spot our journalist in the crowd because he was the only one running toward the gunfire,” he wrote.
Censorship can also take a more indirect form, namely by restricting the sources of reporters: whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are individuals who expose secretive information or activities that are deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within a private or public organization. Such individuals are crucial in the media’s task to bring about the truth.
However, whistleblowers are not always protected, legally or not. Often, such source protection is the last step a country has to overcome in order to gain a higher press freedom index. But without these individuals, we might have never known about major government cover ups. Remember the Pentagon Papers? We have whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to thank for sharing these documents with the New York Times and the Washington Post. Remember the Watergate Scandal that took place right after? Without Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, President Nixon might have gotten away with his actions. These are only two rather well-known examples but there are many more cases.
The violence and abuse that these journalists experience is not only a problem for them, it’s a problem for everyone. Journalism is not a crime; citizens have the right to know the truth and journalists and reporters should have the right to report freely. This is perhaps best illustrated by another quote, from Timothy Snyder:
“Everything good that we take for granted in a free society depends on factuality. And without reporters we don’t have factuality.”
Ignoring, or even justifying, the crimes against journalists leads to cover-ups and severe human rights abuse. This is why the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists was implemented. This is why you should care.
Prospects and solutions
Are there any solutions? According to press freedom NGOs, such as RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is hope. They regularly organize campaigns to raise awareness and constantly lobby various international bodies. Ultimately, their goal is the creation of a United Nations Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists.
In the meantime, these NGOs are also assisting journalists directly by providing bulletproof vests and helmets for those who are entering a high-risk environment. RSF has even created a safety guide for these reporters, as well as an online survival kit to teach how to circumvent censorship. But although these actions and campaigns are truly wonderful, what we need above all are courageous reporters to continue pursuing the work they do.
What can you do? Previously mentioned NGOs always accept donations and so does your country’s journalist union. Contribute, and support those who risk their lives to bring us the truth. Without them, you would not be reading this article.
Want to know more? Visit these websites and Instagram pages:
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – A French NGO which is responsible for publishing the annual World Press Freedom Index (amongst others)
- Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – An American NGO promoting press freedom and defending the rights of journalists
- Protect Press Freedom – A campaign set up by CPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (along with a coalition of over 30 media)
- BehindThePen – An activist Instagram account set up by the author of this article