In 2020 we saw a variety of attacks on journalists; from reporting on the covid19 pandemic, the Anglophone journalists in Cameroon to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US – Do you see a downward trend concerning press freedom on a global scale?
In many ways, 2020 has really brought home the reality that there has never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist. At a global level, we’ve seen this with respect to the number of journalists harassed, attacked, or even killed or jailed for their work as well as with staggering levels of impunity in the murders of journalists worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic too amplified the dangers faced by reporters everywhere – for those in the field the heightened risk of exposure and lack of proper protective gear, for those in prison, a potential death sentence without the ability to isolate. Coupled with protests, elections, and political instability around the globe, made every assignment a more dangerous assignment. Among the most concerning threats for press freedom though, are those posed by leaders who are seizing this moment as an opportunity to clampdown on the flow of information. From China to Honduras, to Hungary, to Thailand, leaders were introducing draconian legislation, employing new surveillance technologies, blocking the internet, or in some cases even stopping the distribution of newspapers. These are just some of the ways we’ve seen governments respond at a time when the public needs independent information more than ever.
As the attention shifted quickly from one major event to another this year: Are there areas in which press freedom was majorly affected but overlooked?
There have been a number of concerning developments in recent months. These include high profile legal threats, like the recent conviction in the Philippines of journalist and Rapppler editor Maria Ressa, to government adoption of new surveillance technology ostensibly to fight COVID-19, to the ongoing (and longest-ever) internet shutdown in Rakhine state in Myanmar.
One particularly insidious threat to the press that has been under-discussed is the economic threat posed to freelance journalists throughout the pandemic. Freelancers make up a significant part of the media ecosystem. For these journalists, the ability to survive – let alone thrive, in the industry is now very much in danger.
Do you think valuable information is not being published because of the crackdown on journalists?
It’s impossible to know the scale of what is lost when the press is stifled. But there is no doubt that the public loses out. Every day a journalist spends behind bars is one where they aren’t out reporting on their communities and the public interest suffers. Censorship or disinformation at moments of critical public decision-making (like say, a pandemic) can be deadly. And when governments turn a blind eye to threats and attacks on the press, it creates a potent cocktail of intimidation and fear leading to self-censorship; stories not pursued, and in some cases, entire careers abandoned. Efforts by governments in countries like Iran or India to censor pandemic reporting, had devastating consequences for public health and safety. But as discouraging as these crackdowns can be, journalists have proven time and again their commitment to getting out the truth. They continue their reporting after escaping harrowing conditions, they find new and creative ways to get information out. There have been encouraging examples of journalists banding together to carry out the reporting of murdered colleagues.
How can journalists’ networks better support reporters to ensure their safety while conducting their duties?
There are a number of steps that journalist networks and news outlets can support the safety of their staff, first and foremost by recognizing that while some dangers, like COVID-19 or tear gas are universally harmful, not every journalist’s risk profile or needs are the same.
Assignments should start with a risk assessment, and clearly outline safety and hygiene protocols. Editors, publishers, and networks providing support should offer up-to-date safety resources to staff and freelancers alike. Journalists should be given access to appropriate training and personal protective equipment where needed.
CPJ Emergencies regularly publishes safety information, and maintains an “Ask an Expert” portal to ensure that any journalist can access information and ask questions about preparing. for assignments with confidence.
Finally the approach to ensuring journalists can work safely must be holistic – meaning not only focused on physical danger, but also on digital security and on psychosocial safety. The exhaustion and psychological toll of this reporting can be immense.