Despite a notable drop in the number of journalist killings, the global press freedom crisis deepened in 2019 as governments increasingly turned to legal harassment, smear campaigns and online attacks to pressure independent media and journalists into silence.
The International Press Institute (IPI)’s global coverage of media freedom this year showed a rise in the abuse of new and existing laws to threaten, harass and jail journalists, as well as the increasing use of populist rhetoric designed to undermine journalism and discredit independent journalists.
“2019 has seen a clear drop in the number of journalists killed to the lowest level in 20 years, even as impunity remains a major challenge”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said. “We certainly welcome this development. However, we fear it may be a direct consequence of increased authoritarian tendencies in many countries, where alternative means of silencing the press, such as twisting the law to harass and jail critical journalists while smearing independent media, have been adopted to shield political leaders from scrutiny and criticism.”
Growing crackdown on independent press
Police raids and arrests of journalists became rampant this year. Maria Ressa, founder of the news website Rappler and an IPI Executive Board member, was arrested twice this year, once in February on cyber libel charges and then again in March on a string of other charges. Several cases have been filed against her and Rappler by the Philippines government due to the site’s critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In Egypt, the government stepped up its intimidation tactics, raiding offices of news organizations and arresting journalists. Last month, security forces raided the offices of Mada Masr, widely seen as Egypt’s most influential remaining independent online news outlet. Earlier this year, Mada Masr received the IPI-International Media Support (IMS) Free Media Pioneer award for courageously delivering independent, investigative coverage to a public otherwise starved of it. Its chief editor, Lina Attalah, and several other staff were detained for hours before being released. Altogether, more than 60 journalists are languishing in Egyptian jails in inhumane conditions, according to IPI research. Mahmoud Hussein of Al Jazeera has been in prison for over three years, while Ismail Alexandrani has spent more than 1,400 days in detention.
Around 115 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey. An IPI-led international press freedom mission to Turkey found no improvement in the country’s press freedom situation, while highlighting the failure of the country’s politically captured judiciary to protect journalists’ rights in court. The long-awaited releases of some journalists were negated by re-arrests or new waves of repression, in particular targeting critics of Turkey’s military incursion into Syria.
A police raid on the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and homes of journalists in June, for a series of reports in 2017 on accusations of unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, drew international condemnation and underscored the lack of sufficient safeguards for press freedom in the country.
Across the globe, governments enacted new laws in the name of national security or curbing “fake news” and hate speech, including legislation in Nigeria, Cambodia and Singapore. Others used existing legal instruments to harass media organizations and journalists. In Poland, for instance, leading daily Gazeta Wyborcza, has been targeted in a string of libel cases by government figures, while Bulgaria opened a criminal investigation against two editors in response to their investigative reporting.
Similarly, in Africa, over 20 journalists were detained in Uganda on November 4, while in Tanzania a freelance journalist, Erick Kabendera, was initially arrested to question him over his citizenship but later charged with money laundering.
Vilification of independent journalism
Politicians have also weaponized social media to harass and vilify journalists and media outlets that are critical of them. While U.S. President Donald Trump continues to discredit media by calling them enemies of the people, other populist and authoritarian-minded leaders across the world have adopted similar tactics designed to undermine the media’s watchdog role.
In Pakistan, death threats were made against the editor and CEO of the English-language daily Dawn after ruling party politicians strongly criticized the newspaper on social media for publishing a report relating to the November 29 attack in London. Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of the news website The Intercept, faced a campaign of harassment in Brazil, driven and encouraged by politicians belonging to President Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party.
An IPI-led press freedom mission to Hungary in November found that independent media are under siege through a combination of media market manipulation and systematic delegitimization of journalists, including rhetoric smearing independent journalists as traitors, political activists and foreign agents.
Drop in journalist killings
While the legal crackdown on the press grew in 2019, there was a sharp, welcome decline in the number of killings of journalists as compared to previous years. According to IPI’s Death Watch, 47 journalists were killed in this year, as compared with 79 in 2018 and 82 in 2017. Of those killed this year, 30 were murdered in targeted attacks in retaliation for their work, frequently in response to reports exposing corruption or the activities of crime syndicates.
The majority of targeted killings took place in the Americas, where some 19 journalists were killed, including nine in Mexico. Four journalists were killed Honduras and two each in Colombia, Haiti and Brazil. In Asia, six journalists were murdered in targeted attacks, whereas in Africa one reporter lost his life this year.
While the drop in killings is welcome, impunity for past murders remains rampant. An international mission to Mexico in November underscored that the country had failed to bring those responsible to justice in even a single case out of more than 100 journalist murders since 2006. Only Europe saw some positive developments toward ending impunity. In October, Slovak prosecutors charged the alleged mastermind behind the 2018 killing of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee. More than two years after the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in November Malta arrested and questioned high-ranking government officials in connection with the crime, including the prime minister’s chief of staff, prompting the prime minister himself to announce his resignation.