By William Horsley, CFOM International Director
Journalists killed with impunity in Syria and Bangladesh, Kenya and Mexico. Insidious state controls through new technologies. More journalists in jail than ever before… Now is the most dangerous time ever to be a journalist: that is the dark and all too familiar picture that emerges from the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2017 edition of Attacks on the Press.
In advance of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, Reporters Without Borders has published its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. In RWB’s assessment, almost across the board, countries known as democracies have fallen back in press freedom terms because of the negative impact of laws, regulations and cases of criminalising journalism: among them the US, the UK, Canada, Poland and Hungary.
Look at the features of this trend – state power used to denigrate the inquiring role of journalists, misuse of public broadcasting to spread government propaganda, and the relative quiescence of the western media as their governments cosy up to authoritarian regimes for ‘reasons of state’ or to sell more weapons.
What this picture reveals is something new — or something that’s been there before but that now stands out more starkly. That unwelcome factor can be described as an enemy within: corruption, complicity and censorship within the news media themselves. It’s a trend now visible in every part of the world.
Regular assessments of threats to press freedom have so far not dwelt on the nature and extent of this inner threat, although miles of newsprint have gone into pointing fingers at RT in Russia, Iran’s Press TV and other outfits that exist to do the bidding of their state masters and to denigrate or smear the perceived enemies of those states, or their leaders.
But this year the annual reports by CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and others shine a searching light on the infiltration — in some cases the takeover — of large swathes of the news media by the enemies of press freedom.
Turkey is a dramatic example. American journalist Andrew Finkel writes for CPJ’s annual publication that a good way to understand the country’s descent into authoritarianism is through the corruption and collusion of the mainstream media. For years the owners of big Turkish media titles have gone soft on the government in exchange for banking licences, lucrative advertising contracts and other favours. In effect, he writes, they sold their souls.
More recently, even before the failed coup and state of emergency imposed last July, President Erdogan tore up the democratic rulebook to close down or take over virtually all Turkey’s independent media houses and intensify the ‘big brother’ watch the authorities keep up over social media. And he frightened the rest by using terrorism and sedition laws in defiance of the European Convention on Human Rights to jail 150 plus journalists, including many of the most respected individuals. Now there seems to be no way back for independent media.
CPJ suggests another kind of neutering of the media in Kenya. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger investigated the fate of John Kituyu, a local newspaper editor. Kituyu was murdered in 2015 while preparing, despite threats, to publish details of his investigation into the story behind allegations of involvement by Kenya’s president Kenyatta and his deputy in bloody post-election violence in 2007. No-one has been brought to justice in connection with the journalist’s death.
No other Kenyan media was brave enough to investigate the story, and in 2016 the International Criminal Court’s prosecution case against the two accused was dropped. Rusbridger sees the silence of the rest of the media as a key lesson. And he described how the Kenyan government is seen to encourage widespread self-censorship among Kenyan reporters by effectively turning off the flow of advertising money to media which publish ‘unhelpful’ coverage.
Recently, Kenyan journalists who took part in an Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ conference in London on challenges to media freedom backed up this interpretation. They spoke frankly about how Kenyan news media had self-censored their coverage of deadly inter-communal violence, bowing to government pressure after warnings that any such reporting could provoke more bloodshed. Now the habit of self-restraint has taken root.
Bangladesh, where 8 secular bloggers have been killed in recent years and self-censorship regarding high levels of official corruption is the norm among newspapers, presents another example of the media caving in to inducements as well as very real threats. The editor of the Daily Star in Dhaka, Mahfouz Anam, speaking at another recent Commonwealth-related gathering in London, deplored the lack of solidarity among media in his country in the face of undue state pressures.
Last year Anam found himself the target of 79 government-backed lawsuits which he says were aimed at stifling his paper’s critical voice. Did his fellow-journalists come to his rescue and support? No. Anam also says the western media’s largely uncritical support for the 2003 Iraq war had damaged its reputation in the eyes of the outside world.
The UK media’s integrity and courage — or lack of it – is being held up to question here at home, too. Speakers at the CPJ’s event last week to launch ‘Attacks on the Press’ cited the Daily Mail’s verbal onslaughts on anyone, including journalists, who dares to question the Conservative government’s pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit’: ‘Crush the saboteurs!’, was the Mail’s headline as it cheered on prime minister Theresa May’s election bid, fuelled by a desire to suppress signs of parliamentary opposition to what some see as her high-handed Brexit tactics.
Alan Rusbridger won the Pulitzer prize for the Guardian’s reports on the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA and GCHQ surveillance. Yet he recalls that the response to the exposure of potentially existential threats to investigative journalism among certain right-wing segments of the British press was to say: ‘Lock up the editor!’.
Reporters Without Borders has downgraded the UK by 2 places to 40th place — down because of more ‘worrying moves against press freedom’. Among them, the threat of a new espionage law that may expose journalists to arrest for holding any information deemed to threaten national interests, and the adoption of the so-called Snooper’s charter. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 provides for sweeping extra state powers to monitor communications and access supposedly private information in ways that could end the era of confidentiality for whistle-blowers and journalists’ sources.
Roy Greenslade, a leading media commentator and former newspaper editor, points out that China praised UK laws as an example to follow when it announced sweeping new ‘anti-terrorism’ powers in the name of fighting terrorism that can be used against dissidents and religious minorities. Greenslade says what’s needed is a formal public interest defence for journalists written into the relevant laws for protection against the overreach of state power in the UK.
Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director for RWB, wants to see a great deal more determined coverage of attacks against the press and other human rights issues in the British media. With much of the media now in economic crisis and mainstream politicians here still aiming to repeal the Human Rights Act or even to quit the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, the climate is hardly favourable.
But, just as the American media are seeking to up their game in response to Donald Trump’s insults, barriers to press scrutiny and unexplained policy gyrations, so the media in the UK and other democracies must put their own house in order to fulfil their proper role as watchdogs over the over-mighty state.