By: The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*
Being a journalist has always been a risky profession, especially if the reporting is aimed at exposing corrupt or criminal behavior by those in power. Further, it has become increasingly risky in light of the growth of social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and others that are suffocating local media outlets throughout the United States and around the world. This trend is especially alarming as newsrooms face additional constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical risks and the new realities of social media and COVID-19 are having a severe impact on independent journalism as we know it.
Already, as of January 2020, 10 journalists and one media assistant have been killed this year and 361 journalists, citizen journalists and media assistants are imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF’s 2020 Press Freedom Index finds that there is a correlation between press freedom and suppression of coronavirus information. China and Iran are prime examples, as both countries tried to minimize the impact of the virus and prevent the media from accurately reporting about it. This is not surprising considering the report showed that China is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, dropping one place in RSF’s index to rank 177th out of 180 countries. While global press freedom scores inched up from 2018, the index still showed an overall decline since 2013. Surprisingly, RSF’s barometer finds that Latin America, particularly Mexico, is just as lethal for journalists as Syria or Afghanistan, with 10 Mexican journalists killed in 2019 and nine in Syria.
According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report, “media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike.” While it may not be surprising that press freedom in countries like Venezuela and China remains abysmal, it is alarming that 19 percent (16 countries) in Freedom House’s “Free” category have experienced a deterioration in press freedom over the last five years. Threats to the media in democratic countries does not typically come in the form of arrest or physical abuse, but rather through more creative means, such as ensuring that one’s political allies take ownership of media outlets (as in Hungary and Serbia) or by hiring individuals to run “mobbing operations” against critics, both online and in person, exposing personal information and harassing them on social media (as in India). The COVID-19 pandemic has provided another pretext for limiting media freedom under the guise of protecting the public from misinformation. On March 16, 2020, Honduras, for example, declared a state of emergency which revoked the right to free expression without censorship, including journalism. RSF has found similar measures limiting press freedom in Azerbaijan, Algeria, Russia, Iraq, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and countless other countries.
The United States is not immune to the global decline in media freedom. During the Obama administration, the U.S. ranking fell from 32nd out of 180 countries in 2013, to 46th in 2014, and 49th in 2015, largely due to efforts to identify the source of leaks by whistleblowers. Since 2016, when the U.S. ranked 41st, it has fallen seven places to 48th out of 180 countries and is rated as “problematic” rather than “satisfactory” or “good”. Aside from President Donald Trump’s obvious disdain for the media — calling it the “enemy of the people” and letting nearly a year pass without holding a White House press briefing — there have been increases in deadly violence, harassment, threats, and physical attacks. Some journalists have resorted to hiring private security firms for protection, while newsrooms around the country have been forced to review their security procedures in light of bomb threats and other harassment. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there were more than 400 incidents of press freedom violations from 2017-2019. Sadly, there has also been a 30 percent drop in trust in the media since the 1970s.
Female journalists face unique pressures in their efforts to conduct investigative reporting. In some countries, cultural norms result in women journalists being attacked for speaking in a public space. Many have to be prepared for the possibility of rape and/or sexual defamation, which are tools used against female journalists. For example, Patricia Campos Mello, a reporter for Brazil’s largest daily newspaper, began facing online harassment after writing an investigative piece against a group of digital marketing companies. The result is often self-censorship, or women journalists stop reporting attacks against them because they do not want to be taken off of a story or a beat.
On top of all of these challenges, the world is facing a near complete collapse in the financial basis for the media, which is hollowing out newsrooms and creating information deserts around the world. The COVID-19 crisis is being called an “extinction event” for many news media, as advertising dollars dramatically decline. The fact is, there is no reliable model for funding local journalism today. Some of the most advanced, established newsrooms in the world’s most developed economies are struggling to survive while their advertising revenues flock to Google and Facebook. In many developing countries, political actors and oligarchs undermine independent media through subsidies and unfair competition, or widespread poverty inhibits the market entirely.
Despite recent setbacks, the United States still has the strongest legal free speech protections in the world, and must continue to be a leader against censorship, harassment, and abuse of the media. Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for addressing the global and domestic press freedom include:
- Restoring respect for press freedom in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, both in speech and action.
- Countering efforts to disseminate disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic by broadcasting accurate information about best practices to contain and reduce the spread of the virus.
- Expanding investments in support of public interest media in the US and globally.
- Assisting independent media to identify ways to strengthen their financial capability so that they may remain independent.
- Passing a federal “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of a journalist’s sources.
- Strengthening the efforts of organizations such as the International Women’s Media Foundation that offer training on how to counter threats and attacks on female journalists.
- Supporting organizations such as the Journalism Trust Initiative, the International Center for Journalists or Internews, which aim to develop professional journalists and journalism standards both in the U.S. and globally.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.