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Opinion The silencing of journalists is an attempt to silence us all

ILLUSTRATION BY ISTVAN BANYAI

Doug Saunders is a Globe and Mail columnist. His latest book is Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough.

You don’t have to like journalists, or respect them, or have warm feelings about them. Those of us who chronicle and analyze the ugly events of the day, and who sometimes dig up stories that people in authority don’t want told, are rarely going to be popular or beloved figures.

But you ought to be concerned about what is being done to journalists, more than ever, by people in power, and by the violent figures who hear their messages. There have always been those who seek to silence the messengers; what is measurably different today, as the latest data from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders show, is that the people who want to kill or silence journalists are increasingly empowered by political leaders in otherwise democratic countries.

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Consider what happened to these individuals last year:

- On February 21, someone travelled to a small Slovakian village an hour’s drive from Bratislava, entered the house of 27-year-old journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, forced them to kneel on the ground, and shot them at close range in the head and chest with a pistol, killing them instantly. Mr. Kuciak had just written, but had not yet published, a story about the tax embezzlement activities of organized crime figures with close links to Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Mr. Fico had spent a decade lashing out at journalists, portraying them as traitors, “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes” and tying them to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The slaying of Mr. Kuciak and his fiancée horrified the Slovakian public, and his story, published in his online newspaper after the killing, provoked months of protests and the eventual resignation of Mr. Fico in March.

- On April 22, Indian journalist Rana Ayyub discovered her social-media channels filled with hundreds of threats of rape and death and pornographic images featuring her likeness, and the pages and TV screens of India’s conventional media filled with voices, some of them from leading politicians, calling her a traitor or an enemy and sometimes endorsing the threats. United Nations experts warned her that her life was in immediate danger, and she had to seek security and avoid leaving home. The cause of the attacks: Somebody had created and published a well-crafted campaign of fabricated social-media posts that made it seem as if she was a supporter of child rapists. Most of the posts attacking her and fabricating outrageous statements from her accounts were posted by people describing themselves as supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ms. Ayyub, who is Muslim, had drawn the wrath of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Hindu-nationalist movements that surround it, with her detailed investigations into the deadly 2002 riots that killed at least 1,000 people in the state of Gujarat and which, her work found, Hindu nationalists linked to Mr. Modi had transformed into a mass murder of Muslims. The threat to her life is tangible: A few months earlier, another prominent journalist who had exposed Hindu-nationalist abuses, Gauri Lankesh, had been murdered. Her death had been preceded by a similar social-media hate campaign carried out by figures who appear to be loyal to Mr. Modi.

- On the morning of October 24, Poppy Harlow, a U.S. cable-news anchor, was delivering her morning news summary in New York when screeching sirens filled the CNN newsroom and a voice in her headset told her and co-anchor Jim Sciutto to abandon their desk and leave the building immediately, live on TV. A mail-room employee a few dozen metres away had opened a package to find a pipe bomb large enough to kill the journalists and scores of their colleagues.

Along with several other potentially deadly bombs, it had been sent to the news channel by a man who had become obsessed with President Donald Trump’s rants against the media. The man had been photographed attending Trump rallies covered in signs echoing Mr. Trump’s anti-media claims. By this time, Mr. Trump had repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” and it appears that this man had acted on those words with a murderous literal-mindedness.

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JOURNALISTS KILLED, BY NATION

May 1, 2018 to May 1, 2019

5

SYRIA

4

U.S.

3

AFGHANISTAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN

REPUBLIC

3

3

INDIA

2

LIBYA

2

MEXICO

2

SOMALIA

1

BRAZIL

1

GHANA

1

HONDURAS

1

PAKISTAN

1

SAUDI ARABIA

1

BRITAIN

1

YEMEN

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS

JOURNALISTS KILLED, BY NATION

May 1, 2018 to May 1, 2019

5

SYRIA

4

U.S.

3

AFGHANISTAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN

REPUBLIC

3

3

INDIA

2

LIBYA

2

MEXICO

2

SOMALIA

1

BRAZIL

1

GHANA

1

HONDURAS

1

PAKISTAN

1

SAUDI ARABIA

1

BRITAIN

1

YEMEN

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS

JOURNALISTS KILLED, BY NATION

May 1, 2018 to May 1, 2019

SAUDI ARABIA

AFGHANISTAN

HONDURAS

PAKISTAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN

REPUBLIC

SOMALIA

BRITAIN

MEXICO

GHANA

BRAZIL

YEMEN

SYRIA

LIBYA

INDIA

U.S.

5

4

3

3

3

2

2

2

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS

What unites these cases, and dozens like them in the last year alone, is that they all occurred in democratic countries, and all are linked, by implication or by direct association, to political leaders and parties that had come to power by targeting “the media,” or specific media organizations, as unpatriotic and politically suspect enemies.

Physical violence against journalists, and against any citizens who use journalistic techniques to document and investigate abuses around them, has become a direct consequence of the new, angry populist politics that targets “elites” and “the mainstream media” as enemies of the people.

“We can draw a direct connection between these politicians who campaign against journalists, and the physical attacks on journalists,” says Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the Paris-based Reporters sans frontières, the international media-watchdog group.

“What these leaders say leads to action.”

The 2019 edition of his organization’s annual World Press Freedom Index, which carefully chronicles acts against journalists and threats to their ability to work (and improvements where they occur) in 200 countries, was released last week and recorded a record-breaking decline in the number of countries registered as “safe,” and a very prominent increase in the number of nominally democratic countries where journalists have been killed or faced threats to their lives.

The list of nominally democratic countries where a leader has recently come to power by attacking and threatening the media – and where, as a direct or indirect consequence, journalists have been murdered – now includes Russia, Turkey, India, Slovakia, the Philippines, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Malta and Brazil.

There are bright signs -- countries where threats to journalists, bloggers and social-media users declined sharply last year. These were mostly countries (notably Armenia, Ethiopia, Gambia and Malaysia) where citizen protests have forced a change in leadership and a return to greater democracy.

On the other hand, it appears that those democratic leaders who menace their journalists are exercising a powerful influence on leaders of less democratic countries, creating a sense that journalists critical of the government can be killed or silenced with impunity.

The most prominent example of this phenomenon has been Mr. Trump’s influence on countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have never been very tolerant of press freedom but turned, after 2016, to overt acts of murder. The slaying and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government in October was only part of a campaign against citizens who speak up and document human-rights abuses that has led to other figures being imprisoned, tortured and killed for journalistic work – often simply for operating a Twitter account with a journalistic voice.

Mr. Trump’s effect on his own country’s media has led to his country falling further down the free-press ranking (the country that invented constitutionally guaranteed press freedom now has only the 48th-freest media). The pipe-bomb attacks were only a small part of a torrent of attacks in that country last year.

The mass murder of five journalists in the Annapolis, Md., Capital and Press last year, while directly motivated by the shooter’s own obsessions, was widely seen as a consequence of Mr. Trump and his backers having repeatedly declared reporters fair targets.

“We can’t say for sure that without Trump he would not have done this, but we are sure that Trump created conditions that can incite such guys to act,” Mr. Deloire said.

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This should concern all of us – not least because every one of us is now effectively a journalist, thanks to the devices in our pockets and on our desks, if we should wish to ask questions about the people in power and post the answers. This has made journalism far more democratic and accessible. But it means that every one of us is a now potential target. When they lash out against “enemies of the people,” they are really targeting the people themselves.

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX, 2019

Good

Satisfactory

Problematic

Difficult

Very serious

1

2

3

4

5

NICARAGUA

Attacks on journalists, both political and physical, have been a phenomenon since the 2016 re-election of populist President Daniel Ortega, but in 2018 they became chronic, as his government arrested, imprisoned and launched violent attacks and death threats against journalists. Many journalists have had to flee the country; others are imprisoned as “terrorists.”

1

ETHIOPIA

Ethiopia experienced the largest improvement, rising from 150th place to 110, propelled by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who freed dozens of imprisoned journalists and bloggers, and restored access to more than 200 news sites. It was the first year no journalists were imprisoned for their views – but promised media-law reforms haven’t yet arrived.

2

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia made life deadly and terrifying for citizen journalists and social-media critics in 2018 under a crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was only the most visible incident; others were tortured and killed in prison or locked up on arbitrary charges, making self-censorship rampant.

3

ARMENIA

Press freedoms were severely restricted in Armenia, until it experienced a popular democratic uprising in 2018 that brought former journalist Nikol Pashinyan to power; he has cracked down on foreign-funded propaganda outlets and encouraged investigative journalism.

4

INDIA

Life for journalists became much more dangerous in 2018, as at least six journalists were killed on the job, most by corrupt politicians or the criminal gangs in their circles. Particularly prevalent were attacks on journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist movement – attacks that were particularly brutal in their targeting of women.

5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES:

JOURNALISTS WITHOUT BORDERS, DOUG SAUNDERS

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX, 2019

Good

Satisfactory

Problematic

Difficult

Very serious

1

2

3

4

5

NICARAGUA

Attacks on journalists, both political and physical, have been a phenomenon since the 2016 re-election of populist President Daniel Ortega, but in 2018 they became chronic, as his government arrested, imprisoned and launched violent attacks and death threats against journalists. Many journalists have had to flee the country; others are imprisoned as “terrorists.”

1

ETHIOPIA

Ethiopia experienced the largest improvement, rising from 150th place to 110, propelled by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who freed dozens of imprisoned journalists and bloggers, and restored access to more than 200 news sites. It was the first year no journalists were imprisoned for their views – but promised media-law reforms haven’t yet arrived.

2

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia made life deadly and terrifying for citizen journalists and social-media critics in 2018 under a crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was only the most visible incident; others were tortured and killed in prison or locked up on arbitrary charges, making self-censorship rampant.

3

ARMENIA

Press freedoms were severely restricted in Armenia, until it experienced a popular democratic uprising in 2018 that brought former journalist Nikol Pashinyan to power; he has cracked down on foreign-funded propaganda outlets and encouraged investigative journalism.

4

INDIA

Life for journalists became much more dangerous in 2018, as at least six journalists were killed on the job, most by corrupt politicians or the criminal gangs in their circles. Particularly prevalent were attacks on journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist movement – attacks that were particularly brutal in their targeting of women.

5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES:

JOURNALISTS WITHOUT BORDERS, DOUG SAUNDERS

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX, 2019

Good

Satisfactory

Problematic

Difficult

Very serious

1

2

3

4

5

NICARAGUA

Attacks on journalists, both political and physical, have been a phenomenon since the 2016 re-election of populist President Daniel Ortega, but in 2018 they became chronic, as his government arrested, imprisoned and launched violent attacks and death threats against journalists. Many journalists have had to flee the country; others are imprisoned as “terrorists.”

1

ETHIOPIA

Ethiopia experienced the largest improvement, rising from 150th place to 110, propelled by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who freed dozens of imprisoned journalists and bloggers, and restored access to more than 200 news sites. It was the first year no journalists were imprisoned for their views – but promised media-law reforms haven’t yet arrived.

2

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia made life deadly and terrifying for citizen journalists and social-media critics in 2018 under a crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was only the most visible incident; others were tortured and killed in prison or locked up on arbitrary charges, making self-censorship rampant.

3

ARMENIA

Press freedoms were severely restricted in Armenia, until it experienced a popular democratic uprising in 2018 that brought former journalist Nikol Pashinyan to power; he has cracked down on foreign-funded propaganda outlets and encouraged investigative journalism.

4

INDIA

Life for journalists became much more dangerous in 2018, as at least six journalists were killed on the job, most by corrupt politicians or the criminal gangs in their circles. Particularly prevalent were attacks on journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist movement – attacks that were particularly brutal in their targeting of women.

5

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: JOURNALISTS WITHOUT BORDERS, DOUG SAUNDERS

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