Threat to journalists

May 28, 2019

The threat to journalists from authoritarian governments


Journalists have always taken risks to get stories out into the mainstream media. But things have changed in the last ten years: murders of journalists have become more targeted as authoritarian governments seek to protect their reputations in an increasingly online media environment.


Journalism can be a dangerous profession: in the need to find accurate information and file up-to-date dispatches, reporters have often put themselves in danger on the front lines of conflict, civil unrest, political violence and organised crime. Although not always appreciated by those they accompanied (in the First World War, they were treated as outlaws and threatened with execution), journalists have always been valued by consumers seeking objective reporting – a product that the Western world has historically valued as something that allows citizens to form their own informed political and social opinions.


Violence against journalists has been worryingly high in recent years, across the world. Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) reported that violence against them had reached “unprecedented” levels in 2018, with at least 80 killed in connection with their work – a 15 percent increase since 2017. Violence, abductions and “enforced disappearances” were also higher on the previous year. Unsurprisingly, the most violent countries were conflict zones, with Afghanistan recording 15 journalists killed, and Syria 11.


Outside conflict areas, Mexico experienced nine journalist murders, and it continues to be one of the worst countries for all media employees. However, what is most conspicuous in recent global violence against journalists is how much of it has been conducted by central state authorities, usually those of authoritarian regimes. Alongside this state violence, it is worth noting that as many as 348 journalists worldwide were imprisoned by their governments in 2018. Most memorable amongst these have been the two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar for 16 months for their reporting on military violence against the Rohingya, released last week after months of international pressure. In the last three weeks, arrests have been conducted in Sudan, Nepal and Libya, while suspensions and other sentences have been handed out to journalists in Egypt and Uganda.


State attacks against journalists can be much more sinister, though. The murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul Saudi consulate in October 2018 was, according to the subsequent CIA assessment, conducted on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Khashoggi had openly criticised Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war, its lack of freedom of speech, its restrictions on secularism and women’s rights, and he wrote an open criticism of MBS two months before his death, attacking his intolerance towards internal opposition. Whilst MBS will not face any investigation for the death (particularly as the US government has contradicted the CIA report and continues to seek a positive relationship with Riyadh), the most important outcome is that MBS will now no longer face internal criticism of his regime, and a precedent has been set that will make Saudi journalists think twice about speaking out against the regime, regardless of where they are based.


What is of greater interest and concern is that authoritarian figures in the developing world, who want to suppress journalists’ output but are unwilling to compromise their relationships with the international community, are making use of their ability to disguise state violence as more mundane acts of crime. While third-world dictators are unlikely to have many qualms about overseeing the arrest or disappearance of reporters who cause problems for them, leaders with something to play for outside their respective realms are more likely to follow a careful path to silence their opponents.


That is the background from which the murder of Marie Colvin needs to be considered. A well-respected foreign correspondent with a high profile, it has been ruled by a US court in February that she was murdered – deliberately targeted by Syrian state artillery in 2012. Syrian intelligence had intercepted her dispatches to the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN, then triangulated her position in Homs and confirmed it with a human intelligence source on the ground. An artillery barrage, one of many in the city, was launched at her location, killing her and a French photographer. She was not an unlucky war correspondent, in the wrong place at the wrong time, but rather the victim of a government attempt to silence her correspondence on how the Syrian army was deliberately targeting civilian communities in Homs. After all, Bashar al-Assad can make a better case against any accusations of war crimes in Homs if there are no international journalists to report them. (The first war crimes cases against him were submitted in the Hague in March this year).


Another incident of particular interest for the same ominous reason is the murder of journalist Viktoria Marinova, who was raped before being beaten and suffocated in Ruse, Bulgaria, in October 2018. She had been conducting investigations into a fraud involving EU funds linked to politicians and businessmen, and had a high media profile (as a presenter on a local current affairs TV show). The nature of the attack (which also involved the theft of some personal belongings) allows what was quite possibly a politically-motivated attack to be disguised as a more conventional crime.


There are a number of factors that allow this situation to persist, in which journalists in the developing world can be silenced by authoritarian governments in concealed attacks. Firstly, the nature of journalism has changed over 20 years. The internet has allowed corruption investigations to increase, given the amount of information that is now openly available online. As it is easier for journalists to access public information, the pursuit of stories looking at corruption by powerful figures is a more attractive prospect to more investigators. (At the same time, the internet itself has allowed corrupt regimes to increase their access to offshore accounting, increasing the actual number of stories worth investigating).


Secondly, in the last ten years social media has revolutionised how investigative reporting is consumed. No longer the need to be commissioned by a newspaper or to secure guarantees of publication, journalists can now release their reports via a myriad of platforms that can be shared globally within seconds. This severely hampers the ability that an authoritarian regime has to censor published material and to control the output of the media. Such regimes need to have fresh approaches. So the Russia Today website, for instance, dilutes a certain amount of the negative press that Putin’s regime receives (although it can only really work when it has the ear of reputable consumers, which it still lacks).


Thirdly, journalists cannot be guaranteed any protection by governments in the developing world, regardless of how good those government’s intensions might be. In Mexico (the “deadliest country for journalists in the Western hemisphere”, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists), President López Obrador campaigned in 2018 to give the press “full, complete freedom”. However, his own relations with the press have plummeted, his tense battles with journalists are broadcast live on state television every day, and four media employees have already been murdered in 2019 (the same as the total in 2018). Reporters in Mexico fear for their lives more than ever.


Fourthly, there is a failure by first-world governments to set the right precedents and demonstrate leadership. If the US government openly derides the journalistic profession, singling it out for the most negative language, then other governments will be under no pressure to improve conditions for their journalists at home. President Trump has sought new ways to silence investigators asking difficult questions of his political and business decisions. Rather than directly silencing investigators or drowning out their output, he has sought to change how the public reacts to the media itself. Following the populist tradition, he emphasises his own “man of the people” image, at the same time investing time and energy into attacking journalists and media outlets for being elite, unsuccessful, lying, “the enemy of the people” and embracing his ability to silence journalists by having them removed from press meetings. Faced with difficult questions, his default response is to refer to “fake news”, a phrase that is welcomed by the percentage of US voters that enjoy conspiracy theories.


The poor example set by the US government is to the detriment of US citizens, and involves the sort of language that resulted in the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette, Maryland, in June 2018. It also decreases the value of journalism across the world, by increasing the climate of fear in which investigative journalists operate. It is perhaps no surprise that in this environment there have been more attacks against journalists in Western Europe. In Malta in October 2017, Daphne Galizia was murdered by an IED, as she conducted an investigation into corruption against politicians. In Italy this April, Valeria Pinna, a correspondent for the Unione Sarda, had her car burned out while investigating corruption in local politics. In June 2018, deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, argued for the removal of police protection for a journalist who had openly criticised him.


Risks to journalists are nothing new, but their risk environment is changing, and without leadership from those Western democracies with a positive history of a free press, governments in the developing world will seek to silence investigative journalism. It should be no surprise if journalists in authoritarian regimes take a safe route and either report what is fed to them by governments, or take the easier route and file dispatches on the sport or gossip. The profession is upheld first and foremost by bold local journalists who are prepared to report objectively on the issues that they want their readers to digest: after all, at least foreign correspondents have somewhere to go if they feel that their safety is compromised. To that end, foreign journalists should have an emergency evacuation plan in place before they travel, and should reconsider their security options if they are reporting on stories that might compromise their safety. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of defence.