Free Press – A Global Success?

Typing this article, I’m aware of an uneasiness creeping upon me, that has been unshakeable since the Investigatory Bill – or ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – passed its final reading in November of 2016 in the House of Lords. Security services will soon have the legal right to install software on my laptop, and track every keyboard letter I touch. They will be allowed to download data from my unattended – or stolen – mobile phone. I’m not alone in harboring discomfort with this draconian legislation: journalists nationwide are threatened by its potential to identify media sources and expose whistle-blowers.

Free press is a crucial element of the 16th Sustainable Development Goal, developed by the 2015 general UN assembly, but trends have been discouraging, both in the UK and on a global scale. Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, and currently only 13 percent of the world’s population (fewer than one in seven people) enjoys a free press – that is, where ‘coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures’. 41 percent of the world’s population has a Partly Free press, and 46 percent live in Not Free media environments.

Not only is the UK now beginning to align itself with these oppressive latter categories, it is infringing upon its free press by means of a common mechanism: government security. The continuing struggle between government security and free press gathered momentum following the first shot of the January 2015 Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks. The shooting put France second to Syria for number of journalists killed that year, and was immediately followed by a global surge of sympathy, and an unprecedented movement for the right to freedom of expression. But, as the year progressed and protesters disbanded, governments began to use the Hebdo attacks not as an impetus for reducing the constraints upon free press, but rather for tightening government security: some of the world’s strongest democracies began to exert increasing pressure and control over the media.


In the Photo: “Je Suis Charlie” became a phrase of solidarity after the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Photo Credit: Flickr/Konrad Lembcke

In France, the government implemented a bill that gave authorities sweeping surveillance powers with negligible oversight, leaving journalists and their data open to intrusive monitoring. In March 2015, Australia passed a law requiring telecommunications companies to store users’ metadata for two years – and, as I’ve mentioned, we in the UK have just taken one further step backwards. Not only are hacking powers granted to government security, but all UK communications providers, from phone companies, to internet messaging services, to postal services, will have to store metadata about what we’ve written for 12 months. In Spain, a public security law introduced in March 2015 imposed considerable monetary fines on anyone present at a protest who disseminated ‘unauthorised images of law enforcement personnel’ – thus inhibiting the work of photojournalists and their ability to communicate police abuses. The government defended the law as striking a ‘balance between freedom and security’, but I doubt the victims of the undocumented police brutalities have found such ‘security’ especially reassuring.

Governments’ next stepping stone, after interception of the press, has always tended to be the control of it. This manifests itself by mounting pressure upon journalists to display political loyalty, and increased media partisanship and polarisation. Since the 2015 UN Climate Summit, this has been most acute in the Middle East, where governments and militias have exerted increasing pressure on journalists to take sides, and demonised those who refuse to be cowed. We cannot help but look at Egypt, where the state-owned and private media outlets almost unanimously embraced a pro-government narrative, and shied away from forbidden topics like the Muslim Brotherhood. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi even reportedly went so far as to hold meetings with the most influential newspaper editors, in order to express the government’s wishes.


Libyan media outlets became increasingly polarised after the fall of Gaddafi in 2015, rent between the rival governments of Tripoli and Tobruk, and ultimately serving as little more than mouthpieces for whichever government or affiliated militia was currently dominant in the region. Yemen’s civil conflict rendered a similarly polarised media, as media sources conceded to the narrative of either the exiled government or the Houthi rebels, and independent journalists who failed to align with either side faced marginalisation or persecution. Even affiliated journalists remained vulnerable to extremist groups, who opposed both the government and rebels. In Turkey, struggles for political dominance over the media intensified, as authorities loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized critical media outlets, and handed them over to politically friendly trustees.

In October 2015, state officials took over Koza İpek, the owner of the television channels Kanatürk and Bugün, and the newspapers Bugün and Millet. In March 2016, the private media group Feza Journalism, which owns Turkey’s largest newspaper – Zaman, was similarly seized. Both actions have been attributed to the companies’ association with Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan branded a terrorist. There was worse.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Maryland Gov Pics

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Syria remained the deadliest country for journalists both in 2015, with at least 16 journalists being killed in the country, and in 2016, with at least 10 deaths. More than 100 journalists have been killed over the course of the conflict, and whilst the number has decreased this is not reflective of improved standards, but rather the glaring fact that there are few journalists left: outlets frequently rely on freelancers for the most dangerous stories, who lack adequate security. It is, as a result, the remaining local journalists who pay the highest price: 90 percent of journalists killed in Syria are local. Yet, dispiritingly, even those journalists who escape Syria are not guaranteed safety: three were followed and murdered in Turkey in 2015, reportedly by IS. Many more, if not murdered, were held hostage, for failing to reflect IS’s dogma.

This phenomenon of kidnapping journalists was not confined to Syria, but marked one of the most threatening global trends since the 2015 UN Summit. It indeed burgeoned from conflict zones in the Middle East, as terrorist groups like IS, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and branches of Al-Qaeda abducted dozens of journalists, but it didn’t stop there. The lucrative potential of the trade was recognized by governments in nominally conflict-free zones, and they began to use kidnapped reporters as bargaining chips. The Iranian authorities detained foreign journalists, and China went so far as to broadcast forced confessions of journalists in order to serve as a deterrent to their colleagues.

Yet, despite this global onslaught upon the free press since the 2015 UN Summit – whether from authoritarian governments, rebel militias, or organized crime groups – journalists have continued to show unbending tenacity and courage in refusing to distort the truth to serve those in power. China may have the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, according to the CPJ, but that didn’t stop a group of reporters from writing about the government-forbidden subject of a deadly industrial accident in Tianjin in August 2015. Neither did it stop, more recently in March 2016, the Caixin media group from publicizing an article that touched on dissent within the Communist party.


In the Photo: Journalists from Al Jazeera and other journalists in Gaza are out on the street following concerns that their media building could be hit by the military.

It’s not just China: a culture of investigative journalism persists in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, with reporters risking their lives in doggedly inquiring after organized crime and corruption. And Syria may be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, but clandestine journalists still continue to work with anonymous media collectives such as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents human rights abuses committed by IS. Another collective, Eye on The Homeland, reports from conflict zones across Syria on violations committed by IS, the Damascus regime, and other fighting groups. Anonymous media cooperatives such as these are invaluable in providing a credible alternative to the biased narratives disseminated by the warring parties, and they seem unlikely to give way any time soon – even IS releasing a video that showed captured reporters being executed didn’t stop them.

As we look back as far as the UN’s 2015 Summit, it’s tempting to look forward to the next one and make projections about the remaining hiatus. We cannot ignore Trump, and whilst the Constitution’s First Amendment will protect American free press to an extent, it seems likely that the President-elect will do everything within his power to usurp journalistic freedom. Throughout his candidacy he denigrated the mainstream media, condemning it as corrupt and dishonest, and portraying it as a group determined to thwart his presidency. He further promised to ‘open up’ libel laws, thus enabling the country’s most powerful to thwart journalists from scrutinizing their lives or failing to show them deference. We shall soon see for ourselves what Trump’s impact will be upon the American press, but if the voices of China, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Syria, are anything to go by, journalists are well aware of the immensely important power they hold, and don’t plan to surrender it any time soon.


About the Author /

Octavia Akoulitchev is currently studying English Literature at Cambridge University, and is an executive member of Cambridge University Amnesty International.

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