Authoritarian and illiberal-minded regimes are becoming increasingly emboldened in their efforts to stifle independent media, the International Press Institute (IPI) warned ahead of World Press Freedom Day 2021.
Brutal crackdowns on the press are unfolding openly across the globe. After seizing power in a coup on February 1, Myanmar’s military junta has arrested more than 70 journalists, revoked licences of independent media outlets, and repeatedly blocked internet access.
In Belarus, the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko launched a campaign to criminalize reporting on protests against last year’s fraudulent election. Local watchdogs have recorded over 550 attacks on journalists, including hundreds of detentions, since the vote.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has accelerated an unprecedented effort to eradicate fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, in Hong Kong. Beijing has targeted prominent critical journalists, like Apply Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, as it transforms the territory into an outpost of its centralized authoritarianism.
The coronavirus pandemic has aided the negative trend as governments use the public health crisis to restrict reporting. Authorities have blocked access to information, arrested journalists for their coverage of the virus, and passed sweeping “fake news” laws that can be used to silence criticism. IPI’s COVID-19 Press Freedom Tracker has recorded 635 press freedom violations around the world. India, which is battling a major wave of infections, has seen 84 violations – more than any other country.
“The rise in open attacks on press freedom and the targeting of journalists in dictatorial and illiberal-minded regimes around the world is an ominous sign for the future of democratic freedoms”, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said.
“Press freedom is under assault everywhere we look, with tactics and methods for doing so being shared and copied by governments. Anti-democratic regimes increasingly feel that they can silence the media with impunity. This has a domino effect, encouraging other states to follow suit.”
She added: “The coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying states of emergency have provided in some cases a cover for governments to usher in new systems and norms that invite censorship and self-censorship. There is a clear risk that many of these norms will outlast the virus and become permanent fixtures. Now is the time to ensure that any rights restrictions are strictly necessary, proportionate and time-limited.”
“The pandemic has also reminded us of how important independent journalism is precisely in moments of crisis. We need an urgent, collective response by the international community – both states and civil society – to robustly defend press freedom as a pillar of free and democratic societies, and to stop the domino effect knocking down the public’s right to independent news and information.”
Authoritarianism on the march
A rise in authoritarianism and so-called “illiberal” democracy is contributing to a global decline in press freedom. Myanmar, Belarus and China are far from alone in their blatant repression of journalism.
Elsewhere in Asia, pressure on media freedom has grown in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, with new charges brought against prominent journalist and IPI Board member Maria Ressa and the forced closure of critical broadcaster ABS-CBN. Meanwhile, India’s increasingly illiberal government, stung by widespread criticism in the media over its response to the pandemic and the large-scale farmers’ protest, has stepped up legal harassment of journalists, notably through its notorious sedition law. Indian media outlets are challenging new rules covering digital media, warning of government censorship. Journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir continue to face an agonizing clampdown aimed at controlling news related to the territory.
In Africa, the re-election in January of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in office for nearly 35 years, was marred by accusations of fraud and more than 100 attacks on journalists in the run-up to the vote. Just hours before the vote, Ugandan authorities brazenly cut off access to the entire internet to stifle public access to information. While Egypt finally released Al Jazeera correspondent Mahmoud Hussein in February, dozens more reporters remain behind bars. Legal proceedings against them are a mockery of due process.
Europe is not immune from the authoritarian turn. Hungary, a European Union member state, continued its dismantling of media freedom by kicking the country’s last independent radio broadcaster, Klubrádió, off the air. Its media capture methods are now being exported to other countries in the region, especially Poland, where a state-controlled oil company purchased the largest network of regional newspapers. Turkey, which remains a leading jailer of journalists, strong-armed online platforms into complying with a new law that facilitates digital censorship.
In Latin America, the regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua continues its war on the free press, shutting down access to information even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Journalists in the country face prosecution, surveillance, harassment and threats.
COVID-19 accelerates negative trends
The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a debilitating blow to press freedom across the globe. Governments have tried to stifle independent media, while an alarming number of journalists have come under attacks for their coverage of the health crisis. So far, IPI’s COVID-19 Press Freedom Tracker has recorded 635 press freedom violations around the world.
Overall, over 200 violations linked to the pandemic were reported in the Asia-Pacific region, of which about half were from four South Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal. Seventy-one journalists faced arrests and charges for their coverage of the pandemic and its consequences in those countries, while 32 cases of physical attacks and verbal threats were reported.
Africa ranks second in terms of arrests and charges against journalists and media outlets. Zimbabwe reported the greatest number of arrests in the region, including that of prominent investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. He was first arrested in July last year for exposing COVID-related procurement fraud within the country’s health ministry.
An alarming number of physical and verbal attacks on journalists were recorded in Europe. A total of 112 cases of attacks have been registered, of which more than 80 percent were by members of the public. Journalists were targeted while covering public demonstrations against lockdowns and other pandemic-related measures.
Numerous states imposed restrictions on access to information, preventing journalists from speaking to health officials or medical workers, or blocking independent media from attending press conferences. Restrictions on access to information were particularly evident in Latin America, where Venezuela and Honduras topped IPI’s Press Freedom Tracker in terms of numbers of violations.
New “fake news” laws were enacted in at least 18 jurisdictions. Sold as efforts to combat disinformation about the health crisis, these laws provide governments with new tools to control the flow of news and information. Most recently, the Malaysian government took advantage of emergency powers to bypass parliament and introduce a regressive new regulation providing up to three years in prison for “fake news” on the pandemic or the state of emergency itself. Russia introduced legislation that imposes a fine of up to €21,000 and a five-year prison term for spreading “false information”.
Almost 50 journalists killed in the past year
At least 49 journalists were killed over the last 12 months, according to IPI’s Death Watch. Of those, as many as 43 were murdered in retaliation for their work. Three journalists were killed covering armed conflict and one died while reporting on civil unrest. Two journalists were killed on assignment.
With nine cases Afghanistan had the greatest number of targeted killings over the past year, including three women working for Enikass TV who were shot dead on March 2 as they were on their way home. In Mexico, six journalists were killed in targeted attacks, mostly for their reports on drug cartels and organized crime.
Impunity remains the norm for killings of journalists around the world. While triggermen are occasionally sentenced for their roles, the masterminds of journalist murders almost never face justice.
In February, U.S. intelligence released a report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had approved the heinous assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have faced no meaningful consequences for the murder – underscoring the lack of accountability for even the most brazen attacks on the press.