How Press Freedom Is Won
On World Press Freedom Day, attention will naturally turn to the myriad ways that journalism, a key component of any well-functioning democracy, is under attack. But, amid the gloom, signs of journalistic resilience are emerging.
ACCRA – Every year on May 3 – World Press Freedom Day – news producers and consumers pause to reflect on the state of global media. This year, as journalists and government officials gather in Ghana for the event’s 25th observance, attention will turn to the myriad pressures and challenges confronting the profession worldwide, and how official and state-sponsored hostility toward the press is threatening democracy.
But these concerns, though certainly valid, are not the entire story. Signs of journalistic resilience are also emerging. So, rather than focusing exclusively on the obstacles journalists around the world are facing, let’s mark May 3 by considering the many reasons for optimism.
For starters, while no media market is immune to erosion of press freedom, resistance is possible. Recent events in Europe are illustrative. In Slovakia, public outrage over the politically motivated double murder of an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign, and has his successor, Peter Pellegrini, walking a public-relations tightrope.
Hungary, too, has experienced its own, albeit tamer, version of journalistic pushback. According to a recent study by the European Journalism Center, despite deepening government control over how the media operates, investigative reporting remains active, and “abuses of the taxpayers’ money are regularly exposed.”
To be sure, the media are under attack like never before, and not only from fake news and polarizing presidents. The slaying of nine journalists in Kabul on April 30, in back-to-back suicide bombings that killed at least 25 people, marked the deadliest day for journalists in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and added to a grim global tally. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 1,000 journalists have been murdered around the world in the last 15 years, and only a handful of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
And yet fresh glimmers of hope are multiplying. Around the world, journalists and their supporters are fighting back in encouraging ways.
Consider online censorship. While governments from China to Russia routinely block or filter access to the Internet, half of the world’s population is now connected – a 20% increase in only five years.
In Sudan, journalists are using this connectivity to save lives. Last year, when the government refused to inform the public about a devastating cholera outbreak, journalists with Radio Dabanga, working with doctors and nurses, used the WhatsApp messaging service to share information about prevention and treatment.
Even in a violent and divided country like Somalia, the Internet is being used for good; increased streaming speeds have kept members of the country’s sizable diaspora connected with friends and family, and have enabled meaningful dialogue across communities.
Legal norms are also moving in the right direction. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of countries with freedom of information laws increased from 90 to 112.
This commitment was deepened last month when the European Union adopted a new law to protect whistle-blowers from prosecution. In a statement, authorities said they hoped the measure would be a boon to investigative journalists by protecting sources who report violations of European law.
Where fewer legal protections are in place, journalists are becoming more creative. In the Philippines, where independent news organizations have become targets of slander by politicians and online trolls, reporters are turning the tables with devastating effect. For example, in a recent series of reports identifying people making threats against the media, the news website Rappler uncovered a network of trolls tied directly to government insiders.
Finally, journalists are working to improve the diversity of their own industry. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, one media organization created a database with the contact details of thousands of female experts who are available for media commentary and analysis. This simple exercise has led to a dramatic increase in the percentage of female experts appearing in the press.
These are just a few of the bright spots we should be highlighting during this year’s observance of World Press Freedom Day. Every day, courageous men and women (and sometimes even children) around the world continue to brave the odds to bring us the news. We all benefit from their dedication, and we all have an obligation to honor their successes, not just their sacrifices.
A Loss for Kenyan Democracy
Recent resignations of eight top columnists at Kenya’s largest newspaper are a reminder that press freedom means more than letting journalists say what they want, how they want. It also means holding media owners accountable, and remaining vigilant against new forms of government interference and censorship.
NAIROBI – On March 27, eight columnists from the Nation Media Group resigned from the Nation newspaper, citing a lack of editorial independence. For Kenya’s largest daily, the exodus of top talent was the latest blow to an already tarnished reputation. The newspaper has suffered a series of embarrassing episodes in recent months, including high-profile firings, mass layoffs by the parent company, and allegations of state meddling in the editorial process.
But the resignations were more than another repudiation of a once-vaunted institution; they were a reminder that the media remain a powerful player in Kenya’s fledgling democracy. When governments constrain journalists – in Kenya or elsewhere – they do so at their own peril.
Like many African countries, Kenya has a long tradition of what might be called “activist journalism” – the dissemination of news and ideas to inspire political or social action. The practice has its roots in anti-colonialism; when the Nation was founded in 1960, it joined other pan-African publications like the New African and Drum to oppose colonial rule. By giving Kenyans a platform to voice their dissent, the Nation – led by its journalists – helped protesters articulate the ideas, slogans, and catchphrases that animated their movements. For many columnists, simply writing for these magazines was an act of resistance.
In the West, activist journalism carries a negative connotation, suggesting bias. But in Africa, this type of journalism has historically kept the media honest by forcing owners to focus more on public good than on profit. In Kenya, however, this model is being eroded by the flow of public funds into private media outlets in advertising and through increasing repression.
The media industry in Kenya is more lucrative than in most African countries, which has led some to assume that Kenya’s press is free. But, increasingly, the opposite is true. Many media companies are dependent on government advertising revenue, and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this spending is being used as leverage by the authorities to censor unfavorable coverage. This is one element of the “state capture of the media” that the eight Nation columnists cited in resigning.
To be sure, official censorship is not new in Kenya. After an attempted coup in 1982, many smaller newspapers were shut down by the state, and between 1988 and 1990, at least 20 newspapers were forced to cease publication permanently.
And yet, even during periods of government repression, savvy journalists have always found audiences for their dissenting views. During Kenya’s democracy movement in the 1990s, one of the most influential was Wahome Mutahi, a humorist who skirted state control to parody the authoritarian president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. Mutahi eventually spent 15 months in the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers as punishment for his writings.
Kenyan media experienced a revival in the post-Moi era; by 2012, the country had 301 radio stations and 83 television stations, up from only three television networks in the 1990s. But the growth in media outlets and liberalization of the country’s politics did not translate into more press freedom. Instead, after a brief reprieve between successful elections in 2002 and post-election violence in 2007, journalists were targeted once more.
Crackdowns have ranged from the severe – including detention, torture, and disappearances – to the subtle. For example, when the political cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, known as Gado, was forced from his post at the Nation in 2016, his bosses didn’t explicitly fire the newspaper’s most popular contributor. Rather, they simply refused to renew his contract when it expired. The same thing happened to David Ndii, an economist and opposition-affiliated columnist for the Sunday Nation.
But these dismissals pale in comparison to a government-imposed blackout in early February. To prevent journalists from reporting on a political rally by then-opposition leader Raila Odinga, the Kenyan government forced three private television stations off the air for days, ignoring court orders to end the blockade. Journalists at one station, Nation Television, huddled in their offices as they coordinated with lawyers and sought to avoid arrest. When the dust eventually settled, executives from all three networks had resigned.
Without courageous, pioneering journalists, Kenya’s pro-democracy movement may never have succeeded. Activist columnists helped the public understand political decisions by making policy accessible. In Mutahi’s case, the use of his own family in his parodies was a device intended to demonstrate that petty domestic despotism was no different from the political tyranny orchestrated by an autocratic president.
Kenyans need similar means of reflection today. And yet, just when the country’s democratic institutions could most benefit from such a mirror, those who have historically held it up now believe they have no alternative but to put it down.
For Kenya, the very public decline of the Nation has come at a high cost. But it has also demonstrated that press freedom means much more than letting journalists say what they want, when they want, and how they want. It also means holding media owners accountable. A highly competitive electoral system framed by a compromised media is more likely to fuel dissent than to stem it, and Kenya’s democracy will suffer so long as the country’s stewards of public enlightenment turn their backs on it.
A Cautionary Tale for Media Regulators
For more than a decade, Ecuadorian journalists have increasingly felt the effects of repressive media and speech laws that were supposedly enacted in the "public interest." As other countries consider regulations to combat misinformation, the public and policymakers must understand how even well-meaning efforts can go badly wrong.
QUITO – To understand the possible consequences of US President Donald Trump’s constant denunciations of the press, one need look no further than Ecuador, where former President Rafael Correa’s government attacked the news media for years. During his 2007-2017 presidency, Correa implemented a raft of measures aimed at stifling press freedom. And, like Trump, he regularly used the media as a whipping boy to rally his supporters.
In 2015, Correa managed to pass a constitutional amendment re-categorizing communications as a public service, like water or electricity, thereby allowing for more state control over speech. And with the stated goal of ensuring “balanced media coverage,” he pushed through the 2013 Ecuadorian Communication Law, and enacted additional regulations allowing the government to crack down on journalists with fines, forced public apologies, and even prison sentences.
Like Trump, Correa would sometimes go on television or radio programs to denounce journalists by name; and his government repeatedly took news organizations to court. For example, Correa brought an $80 million lawsuit against El Universo, one of the country’s major newspapers. In the end, the paper was forced to pay $40 million in exchange for a “pardon.”
With the spread of disinformation online fueling distrust of the media and other institutions, regulations to police some kinds of speech may seem like a good idea. Clearly, major distribution platforms like Facebook need to be more heavily regulated.
But, in some cases, laws enacted in the “public interest” can actually work against it. And at the same time, laws meant to support legitimate journalism usually offer only scant protection against those who are determined to act in bad faith. I learned this first-hand when I accompanied a group from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on a recent trip to Ecuador.
From speaking to Ecuadorian journalists, it is clear that most of Correa’s media policies and enforcement practices crossed the line into outright censorship. News outlets that did not provide ample coverage of government statements were fined, as were outlets that did not recirculate foreign press reports that were favorable to the government or critical of opposition figures. On some occasions, news outlets were even forced to print or air lengthy dissenting statements from government officials who disliked their treatment in the media.
Ecuador’s experience shows how laws that seem reasonable on paper – such as those guaranteeing subjects of news stories a “right to reply” – can easily be abused. According to Ecuadorian journalists, government officials often refuse to speak to reporters because they know that, should a story about them appear, they can simply force the outlet to publish a long, unedited statement of their own. And though news outlets may appeal in “right to reply” cases, doing so can lead to lengthy and costly lawsuits.
Similarly, laws affording ordinary citizens the right to complain about press reports are easily gamed. Government officials routinely find “ordinary citizens” to file complaints against media organizations on their behalf.
Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, has promised to ease the country’s media restrictions. And in a recent meeting with the CPJ, Ecuadorian Secretary of Communication Andrés Michelena said the government plans to reform the Ecuadorian Communications Law this year. Still, as the journalists we met noted, the structure and language of the law have not changed.
In general, Latin American media tend to be captured by elites, with wealthy owners whose interests are represented in how the news is reported. This is why many of the leftist politicians who came to power in the last two decades pledged to make media more representative of voiceless and marginalized communities.
For example, in Argentina, certain forms of cross ownership were banned. In other countries, underrepresented indigenous communities were given cameras and broadcast licenses. And in some cases, governments have interrupted programming on privately owned television stations to issue political statements. Under Correa, the government even assumed editorial management of the country’s oldest newspaper, El Telégrafo.
In Ecuador, what started as a move toward media diversity ten years ago has ended up eliminating much of the country’s capacity for investigative and critical reporting. This does not bode well for the country’s future. Aggressive, fact-based journalism is a public good. As the fourth estate, the media holds governments and corporations accountable by reporting on corruption, environmental degradation, and other violations of the public trust. But in Ecuador, journalists now must fear the consequences of doing their jobs.
Like many Latin American countries, Ecuador is deeply polarized. Correa still has many supporters on the left who point to his government’s stunning achievements in reducing poverty and boosting health and education spending. They say that the corruption during Correa’s presidency was no worse than under previous governments, and they applaud his government’s efforts to rein in the media, which they view as dishonest and representative of right-wing, corporate interests.
There is a lesson here for the US and other countries where distrust of the media is growing. Since the revelations that Facebook and Twitter played a key role in disseminating false information and sowing mistrust and racial tension in the 2016 US election, a growing chorus has called for stricter regulations. But such regulations can be difficult to implement fairly, and can have unintended consequences.
Ecuador has learned the hard way that if combating misinformation means the loss of in-depth, factual reporting and a media that can play a watchdog role, then the price is too high. Let us hope that this lesson is taken on board not just in Ecuador, but in democracies worldwide.
When Fighting Fake News Aids Censorship
Laws meant to curb “fake news” may be well intentioned, but their implementation has been sloppy, with few mechanisms to ensure accountability, transparency, or reversibility. Governments are outsourcing censorship to the private sector, where maximizing shareholder value, not upholding journalistic freedom, drives decision-making.
WASHINGTON, DC – Many media analysts have rightly identified the dangers posed by “fake news,” but often overlook what the phenomenon means for journalists themselves. Not only has the term become a shorthand way to malign an entire industry; autocrats are invoking it as an excuse to jail reporters and justify censorship, often on trumped-up charges of supporting terrorism.
Around the world, the number of honest journalists jailed for publishing fake or fictitious news is at an all-time high of at least 21. As non-democratic leaders increasingly use the “fake news” backlash to clamp down on independent media, that number is likely to climb.
The United States, once a world leader in defending free speech, has retreated from this role. President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades about “fake news” have given autocratic regimes an example by which to justify their own media crackdowns. In December, China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper posted tweets and a Facebook post welcoming Trump’s fake news mantra, noting that it “speaks to a larger truth about Western media.” This followed the Egyptian government’s praise for the Trump administration in February 2017, when the country’s foreign ministry criticized Western journalists for their coverage of global terrorism.
And in January 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised Trump for berating a CNN reporter during a live news conference. Erdoğan, who criticized the network for its coverage of pro-democracy protests in Turkey in 2013, said that Trump had put the journalist “in his place.” Trump returned the compliment when he met Erdoğan a few months later. Praising his counterpart for being an ally in the fight against terrorism, Trump made no mention of Erdoğan’s own dismal record on press freedom.
It is no accident that these three countries have been quickest to embrace Trump’s “fake news” trope. China, Egypt, and Turkey jailed more than half of the world’s journalists in 2017, continuing a trend from the previous year. The international community’s silence in the face of these governments’ attacks on independent media seems to have been interpreted as consent.
In Turkey, the world’s top jailer of journalists two years in a row, the erosion of free speech has been particularly swift. Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, Turkey’s courts have processed some 46,000 cases involving people accused of insulting the president, the nation, or its institutions. Each of the 73 journalists currently behind bars is being investigated for, or charged with, anti-state crimes. The most common charge against reporters is belonging to, aiding, or propagandizing for an alleged terrorist organization.
Vaguely worded laws that conflate reporting about terrorism with supporting it provide cover for regimes intent on preventing unfavorable news coverage. For example, attempting to write about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Uighurs in China can quickly land reporters in jail for harboring terrorist sympathies. Nearly three-quarters of the 262 journalists in prison around the world are being held on anti-state charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent survey.
Even when journalists aren’t arrested, autocrats are increasingly invoking the claim of “fake news” to discredit legitimate reporting. And here, ironically, efforts by some Western governments to sanitize social media of fake or violent material have played into the autocrats’ hands. While the goals of these cleansing efforts – to prevent the type of electoral interference that Russia has perfected, for example – are laudable, an unintended consequence has been censorship of honest journalists reporting on real stories in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
Consider what happened last year to video coverage of the civil war in Syria. In an effort to rein in extremist content, YouTube removed hundreds of videos related to the conflict, including many posted by Shaam News Network, Qasioun News Agency, and Idlib Media Center – all independent news outlets documenting the disaster.
Similarly, Facebook closed accounts of individuals and organizations that were using the platform to document violence against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, a crisis that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Facebook said it acted in response to violations of the platform’s “community standards.”
And in Egypt and Syria, Twitter has blocked citizen journalists from reporting on human-rights abuses, according to journalists whose accounts have been closed. Twitter’s censors have even hit the heart of Europe; in January, a German satire magazine was blocked from the platform after the Bundestag enacted legislation imposing fines of up to €50 million ($61 million) on social media firms that fail to remove illegal content in a timely manner. Other European countries are considering similar measures to compel Internet companies to battle misinformation and extremism.
Laws meant to curb hate speech, violence, or “fake news” may be well intentioned, but their implementation has been sloppy, with few mechanisms to ensure accountability, transparency, or reversibility. Governments are outsourcing censorship to the private sector, where maximizing shareholder value, not upholding journalistic freedom, drives decision-making.
Leaders of the world’s democracies must resist the illiberal assault on independent news organizations, and that means rethinking loosely crafted content laws that are vulnerable to abuse. A free, vibrant media is vital to the functioning of a healthy society, and misinformation can undermine it. But official remedies that end up silencing those reporting the news are worse than the disease.