Last month, Casimir Kpedjo was arrested at his home in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. His alleged crime? Publishing “false information” in Nouvelle Economie, the daily newspaper where he serves as managing editor. This came a day after Cuban journalist Roberto Jesus Quinones was reportedly beaten by police after being arrested; Mr. Quinones, who has been harassed and detained by police numerous times, remains in custody. In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, journalist and activist Mehman Huseynov, who chairs the country’s Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, was temporarily barred from leaving the country; Mr. Huseynov was released from prison in March after a two-year sentence for defamation. In Belarus, a government crackdown on independent media continued when the Minsk offices of the TV station Belsat were raided. All this followed the introduction, on April 1, of sweeping new “fake news” legislation in Singapore that critics worry will suppress freedom of speech.
The threats journalists around the world face are myriad – from interference to intimidation to violence. All are equally troubling.
In Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were 68 journalists in prison, while in Mexico there are currently 14 classified as missing. Since the start of 2018, more than a dozen journalists – from camera operators to producers to reporters – have been killed on the job in Afghanistan. Closer to home, they are branded as the “enemies of the people” by the President of the United States.
To mark World Press Freedom Day, The Globe and Mail canvassed journalists around the world about the challenges they face, asking them the same question: What is the greatest threat to press freedom in your country? Below is a selection of their responses. More will appear online and in Saturday’s Globe and Mail as part of a special 12-page section on the subject of press freedom, featuring contributions from Globe journalists and our colleagues around the world.
‘The attack was related to my work as a journalist’
Being a journalist in Hong Kong has always been equated with making an unattractive salary, facing high political pressure and being confronted by a cloudy future. Now, when you add physical danger to the formula, the chilling effect is plain for all to see.
On the first day of Hong Kong’s annual book fair in July of 2015, I sat signing for readers copies of my new book, Still Standing, for Freedom. Its cover photograph depicted me standing on the pavement at the Quarry Bay seaside where, a year ago, I had been stabbed multiple times. I was hospitalized for five months and endured 4½ years of physiotherapy. Two men were subsequently arrested, charged and convicted to 19 years in jail; the court upheld their convictions when they appealed, confirming what I knew: that the attack was related to my work as a journalist. So for my book cover, I made it a point to stand at the place where I was chopped down. Press freedom was at stake.
At the book signing, a high-school girl came to speak to me, telling me it was her mission to become a journalist. Her parents, however, were worried after reading the news of my injury, and tried to persuade her to drop her dangerous dream. After a year of struggle and debate, she told me that she was going to go ahead and apply for journalism school.
I was very touched, and I thanked God. But my rational mind told me that while this was one student deciding to follow her dream, there might be many more who don’t because of the inherent danger of our profession, even in a place like Hong Kong.
– Kevin Chun-to Lau, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao
‘The ways in which the press aren’t able to be free are wide and overreaching’
In a region where media freedom has been quashed for many decades, too many systems have been built up that suppress the press and allow regimes to maintain control.
The regimes in the region have spent the past several decades building barricades: From education systems that focus on science and belittle the arts to deter young people from independent thinking; to laws that outright criminalize criticism of those in power; to building media empires to broadcast their opinions as fact to the whole population. The ways in which the press aren’t able to be free are wide and overreaching.
From our angle as a political-satire publication that started in the Middle East and moved to Britain, we see how the thin skin of those in power is dangerous and detrimental to press freedom. Be it a joke or a direct criticism of their actions, they cannot simply shrug it off. Instead they will make sure they “teach” those who criticized them a lesson. To anyone else, it might be seen as a joke, or a way to discuss what is happening. To them, it’s always personal, it’s always a humiliation. As the saying goes in Arabic, the one who has something on his head will keep reaching up to touch it.
Combine the thin-skinned person who adamantly believes they are right with a dangerous amount of power and you get systems that will drag an individual to prison for years simply for posting their opinion on Facebook.
– Isam Uraiqat, editor-in-chief of al-Hudood, “The Onion of the Middle East”
‘The picture is grim, and the risks are high’
It was an afternoon much like any other, until four armed officials in plainclothes stormed the Daraj offices to arrest its editor-in-chief without any warrant from any judicial authority. It was obvious the arrest was illegal – but out of experience, we decided to comply.
We had no idea why our editor was being arrested or where he was being taken. All we knew was that this was serious. Despite the laws protecting freedom of speech in Lebanon and the fact that Beirut is, relatively speaking, the safest city in the region for journalism, the previous months had seen an unprecedented rise in arrests of journalists, activists, bloggers and even comedians. Fabrication of files and torture in custody weren’t unheard of.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry for long. The whole thing ended with a cup of coffee in the hospitality of a bored general. It was a simple “misunderstanding,” according to the Interior Minister who, under the pressure of social media, apologized in a tweet a couple of days later.
Still, the message was clear, and it wasn’t a huge surprise. Daraj [an independent online news site] had just turned one at the time, and it had already been sued and threatened by both local and regional forces. Many of its writers, working in conflict zones or reporting on controversial topics, use pen names to protect their identities.
In addition to the threats facing any nascent independent media – including the growing risk of being censored, or worse, blocked in major markets, Daraj shares the same challenges faced by any newsroom in the world. Funding and distribution top the list.
The picture is grim, and the risks are high, to be sure. But it’s also certain that there has never been a time when independent journalism was more needed – or more possible.
– Alia Ibrahim, co-founder and CEO of Daraj Media, Lebanon
‘Japanese journalists used to stand up to power, unafraid’
The popular narrative around Japanese press freedom is that it has eroded under the rule of conservative leader Shinzo Abe, who is on track to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Reporters Without Borders’s latest study ranks Japan the lowest among the Group of Seven countries in press freedom because of pressure and “a climate of mistrust” that critics allege arrived after Mr. Abe’s return to power in 2012.
But what exactly are these pressures?
An oft-cited example is a 2014 letter to national broadcasters in which the ruling Liberal Democratic Party requested “fair and balanced” election coverage. In these politically charged times, the letter was widely denounced as a threat to journalism and press freedom, suggesting it carried a note of intimidation.
And certainly, the government and the Prime Minister have complained of what they say is unfair or biased coverage. Some have even suggested that biased coverage should be “punished,” without mentioning any specifics.
But then again, their response has hardly been aggressive: Journalists are not getting their press credentials revoked or facing blatant threats, as seen elsewhere.
It goes without saying that it is imperative for journalists to push back against real government pressure, but there may be a deeper problem now at play. Rather than ignoring it and carrying on with their reporting, complaining about Mr. Abe’s “pressure” signals that our journalists will easily cower in the face of any pushback from authorities, rather than fight for the truth. The Japanese press has been keeping the Abe government in check, but who can trust a press that carps so much?
Japanese journalists used to stand up to power, unafraid. In 1972, when then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato gave his last news conference, he said he wanted to speak directly to the people through television, and told print journalists to leave. The entire press corps left the room in solidarity.
Shinzo Abe’s term ends in two years. Will the press continue to complain, even after then?
– Takashi Yokota, deputy managing editor at The Japan Times
‘Journalists are once again targets of intimidation and persecution’
During more than 20 years of military dictatorship, Brazilian journalists, opposition politicians and academia were systematically censored, persecuted, threatened, tortured and killed.
Dictatorship ended in 1985.
Thirty-four years later, in comes a democratically elected President, Jair Bolsonaro, who denies the authoritarian character of the military rule. Journalists are once again targets of intimidation and persecution by the government, this time with the help of social media and digital militias, legal suits and virtual lynching.
A new form of censorship and harassment has arisen, outsourced to armies of patriotic trolls and amplified by bots on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The President publicly threatens newspapers like Folha de S. Paulo and TV networks like Globo, leading media outlets in the country. Antagonizing the press has become part of the political discourse, just like in many other countries.
A plethora of bloggers and websites peddling fake news and distorting real news dominate social media, with the aim of discrediting mainstream media. They are condoned and sometimes promoted by the government.
The result is that regular people no longer know what is true and what is fake, what is journalism and what is political spin. At this moment, our biggest challenge is to reaffirm the importance of independent journalism in the middle of this new world of manipulated narratives.
– Patrícia Campos Mello, repórter especial and editor at large, Folha de S. Paulo
‘I write from exile’
Beatings, thefts, detentions, equipment confiscations, jail and murder. These are the tools that the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have clamped onto journalism in Nicaragua. The discourse of hatred and isolation against the independent media began when the presidential couple returned to power in 2006. In the last year, the onset of sociopolitical crisis in the country has created an even more dramatic and deadly environment for journalists.
The violent escalation against journalists started in the worst way: with the murder of my colleague Ángel Gahona on April 21, 2018. The world saw Angel fall as he was doing a Facebook Live report about protests in the city of Bluefields. Arbitrary arrests by police and paramilitaries have become the norm, as has the theft and destruction of journalists’ equipment.
In December, 2018, the Sandinista regime closed and confiscated the publishing house where I work. A week later, it did the same with the Canal 100% Noticias, in a move so harsh that they arrested – and continue to hold as political prisoners – my colleagues Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda Ubau. The regime’s criminalization of journalism has sent more than 55 reporters into exile.
I write from exile; my colleagues who continue to resist in Nicaragua are at the forefront of my mind. I feel we share a determination that helps us to cope with the Ortega-Murillo gag: Our journalism does not falter. We are eager to inform, to analyze and to investigate, especially this dictatorship soaked in the blood of more than 325 Nicaraguans, among them our colleague Ángel Gahona.
– Wilfredo Miranda Aburto is a Nicaraguan journalist working for Confidencial, a specialized investigation and analysis newspaper
‘The government seems to be encouraging a backlash against journalists’
For a founding member of the European Union, which considers freedom of speech a core and defining value, Italy’s press-freedom rankings are appalling, clocking in at 46th. Italy’s journalists, especially those who cover the Mafia and right-wing extremism, have been under siege. And now, the government seems to be encouraging a backlash against journalists.
In November of last year, Luigi Di Maio – deputy prime minister and leader of the Five Star Movement, which forms half of the ruling coalition – said during a news conference that journalists were “negligible jackals” and represented the “true plague of this country." He accused them of generating “fake news." That’s in line with Italian watchdog association Ossigeno per l’informazione’s report that 3,660 journalists have received threats since 2006, with 226 in the last year.
A new menace has come to the fore, too: threats from neo-Nazis. Paolo Berizzi, a journalist for the Italian daily La Repubblica, has been living with his family under 24-hour police protection since last February, just for covering the resurgence of extreme right-wing groups in Italy. He has found death threats, swastikas and Celtic crosses scribbled on walls in his home.
This all exacerbates the fact that Italy has no laws protecting journalists from attacks, and the libel laws work against them. The crime of aggravated defamation is punishable by six years in jail, the second-longest such punishment in Europe. The threat of a lawsuit against journalists is wielded as an instrument of intimidation, with the costly legal proceedings serving as a de facto gag, especially given that, according to statistics gathered by Italian rights groups, 90 per cent of the more than 5,000 lawsuits for defamation filed against Italian journalists every year are eventually rejected as groundless.
– Lorenzo Tondo is a Guardian correspondent covering Italy and the migration crisis
‘These lies don’t stop at borders’
Compared to other European countries, the German media is still in good shape. But politicians who don’t care about facts and spread rumours and conspiracy theories – like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – are on the rise, and in today’s superintegrated European Union, these lies don’t stop at borders. Far-right xenophobic party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) gained a lot of popular support in 2015, and since then, reporters of the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have regularly been labelled “lying press” or “Lügenpresse” – an expression from the Hitler years. According to Reporters Without Borders, 22 reporters were physically attacked during demonstrations in 2018.
But in December, one German reporter also made our jobs far more difficult: Claas Relotius, a star writer, was exposed as a fabulist, faking several stories for the country’s most famous publication, the weekly magazine Der Spiegel. By fabricating profiles on Syrian refugees and unflattering stories about Donald Trump supporters, the 32-year-old award-winning Mr. Relotius confirmed all the stereotypes of an elitist, urban, green-voting media bubble. Der Spiegel has suffered the most: Some of its investigative stories have been dismissed by politicians who call them “pure Relotius.”
It’s dangerous when reporters are murdered just for getting close to powerful people, and when we’re assailed for doing our jobs. But the Claas Relotius affair did reveal a dangerous groupthink in German media, and that more needs to be done to ensure accuracy.
– Matthias Kolb is the Brussels-based EU correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading national newspaper
‘There is a systematic effort to stifle press freedom’
In Somalia, the greatest threat to press freedom is self-censorship and there are many examples that illustrate this.
A local news site published a story with photos showing an office break-in of a senior intelligence official. The story was quickly taken down.
A journalist worked on a story about [militant Islamist group] Al-Shabaab men marrying girls as young as 15, sometimes without parental approval. But his editor dropped it.
These stories share one common factor – fear. Journalists fear death, detentions and torture if they pursue legitimate stories.
Dozens of journalists were killed in Somalia in the past decade. Al-Shabaab is blamed for most killings but Western-backed governments do not have a clean record either. Last year, a cameraman was shot dead by a policeman, who remains at large.
There is a systematic effort to stifle press freedom. In April, Mogadishu’s only ambulance service, Aamin Ambulance, was told not to “come to bombing sites” by police. Journalists see this as an attempt to purge information. The ambulance service was providing journalists with casualty figures. Officials want to sanitize these figures and run them through the health ministry, but the ministry rarely discusses attacks. Government information often contradicts witness accounts.
Journalists who report on stories that the government doesn’t find flattering are harassed and smeared on social media. Some officials label journalists they don’t like as “Al-Shabaab sympathizers.” Al-Shabaab describes journalists they don’t like as “non-Islamic media.”
This malicious effort at suppressing press freedom forces journalists to exercise self-censorship.
– Harun Maruf is a VOA journalist and co-author of Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally
‘Business consideration often wins over journalism’
On the surface, Uganda’s media seem to be enjoying freedom, especially those based in the capital Kampala, which often carry investigative stories, a range of opinions, political talk shows; some feature guests critical of government policies. In reality, however, professional and independent journalism is under threat. The media outside the capital face immense pressure on two fronts: The government and media owners.
The government deploys tactics ranging from physical violence and harassment to criminal charges. However, the biggest threat to press freedom in Uganda comes from media owners. The media industry in Uganda grew rapidly following liberalization of the sector in the 1990s, from just two radio stations to now over 300; from one TV station to over 15 today, and from one newspaper to seven and a multitude of online publications. Many termed liberalization of the sector as a victory for freedom of expression, but for me and several journalists in Uganda, it was actually a success for business and politics.
Media companies critical of the government have been closed, and so media owners aren’t willing to stand up to the government because doing so could mean their licences get withdrawn. Business consideration often wins over journalism. Journalists, therefore, apply self-censorship. The desire to maximize profit has resulted in poor pay, reduced investment in training and research. There is outright lack of transparency in decision-making. Many outlets opt for freelance practitioners who are paid on a piecemeal basis. The payments range from 50 US cents to US$5 per story. Salaried practitioners get no other benefits, or protection measures for journalists working in risky areas.
– Barbara Among is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda
‘Ethiopian society has not fully embraced the ideals of journalism’
This year, perhaps as an endorsement of Ethiopia having no journalists in prison for the first time in over a decade, UNESCO is celebrating its 26th edition of World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa. Being celebrated by reputable organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists is a new high for a nation that once imprisoned journalists, clamped down on independent newspapers, made the act of investigative journalism treason with bogus anti-terrorism laws, and spied on journalists.
However, there are still plenty of challenges for Ethiopian journalists. The greatest threat remains the lack of security to do our work and be the voice of the voiceless, which is the ultimate goal of a journalist, not become the mouthpiece for the government and the powerful.
There are many Ethiopian journalists who can’t access parts of the nation for fear we might face attacks by the population. Many can’t write about certain people for fear of swift reprisal. Many won’t pursue investigative reporting, knowing we are vulnerable to random attacks with little protection by the state. This, in a society that has no consensus on the role of journalists between its federal and regional government counterparts, is what hinders our role as journalists.
While the era of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has brought a new promise to the nation, Ethiopian society has not fully embraced the ideals of journalism and its profound role as a watchdog of the public’s right to know.
– Samuel Getachew is a journalist with The Reporter newspaper, based in Addis Ababa
‘The government wants a law put in place to ‘punish’ journalists’
The threat to press freedom in Zambia is getting more real with the government’s plans to fully control the media via statutory regulation.
The Minister of Information is pushing for the formation of a media association to which all journalists must belong. After that, the government wants a law put in place to “punish” journalists for whatever wrongs they might commit in the line of duty.
What is surprising is that we already have so many laws, among them contempt of court laws, defamation laws and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act that specifically regulates and licenses broadcast media etc. In addition to this, the government is coming up with cyber laws that will further shrink the space for media and civil society. Abuse of social media is one reason being cited. But in reality, the target is clearly online media that are critical of the current government and the party in power.
In 2016, a private newspaper, The Post, was closed. In that same year, the government, through the IBA, withdrew licences for two radio stations and a television station over claims of “unprofessional” reporting.
Just last month, another privately owned television station fell victim and had its licence suspended for 30 days by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (it was reinstated five days before the end of the suspension period).
These trends are extremely worrying and we hope the government can allow the media to regulate itself, and more importantly, give it more space to operate independently. Added to this is political interference, where most media institutions currently are being controlled and/or are owned by politicians.
– Joan Chirwa is founder of the Free Press Initiative Zambia