Research indicates international pushback against the free press

illustration by Skye Ali

On Saturday April 28, the New York Times published an article titled, In Mexico, ‘It’s Easy to Kill a Journalist. It discussed how Mexican journalists are often victim to extrajudicial murders by cartel enterprises and corrupt officials who want to silence opposition and prevent accountability and investigation.

Though the Times’ piece on Mexico was specific in its focus, it does raise a larger question: is the threat journalists face unique to Mexico, or do journalists lack protection worldwide?

The Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit media watchdog, releases an annual “prison census” on how many journalists are jailed worldwide. In December 2016, the report found 259 journalists were jailed by governments across the globe. The number does not include arrests for non-journalistic activity – such as protests, being an academic, or alleged subversion – and does not include the arrest of journalists in non-UN recognized states. Essentially, the census found the threat of death and jail time for journalists is in fact increasing in and outside of Mexico.

The number of arrests skyrocketed following the failed coup attempt of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. 81 journalists were immediately arrested and since then Turkey has maintained the highest number of imprisoned journalists worldwide.  The CPJ also indicates that this year, eight journalists – three in Mexico, one in Bangladesh, Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines and Syria – have been killed so far.

In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a government organization that has faced decades of criticism for its failure to protect journalists, published the a special UN report titled, Resolution on the Safety of Journalists.  The report,  “urges all states to release arbitrarily detained journalists, reform laws that are abused to obstruct their work, and to not interfere with the use of encryption and digital security tools that enable anonymity.”

Following heed in March 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made a rare legal move in insisting on the release of Şahin Alpay, one of the 81 Turkish journalists arrested in July. The ECHR reviewed and processed the application which requested for “interim measure” for his release due to both an “unjust” arrest and potential health risks Alpay may have faced while in jail.

Later that month, the Eritrean-Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaak, who was arrested in a 2001 crackdown – known as “Black September” – of Eritrea’s free press and academic institutions led by President Isaias Afwerki, was selected to receive the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Isaak was popular in America, Europe and the Middle East and was often critical of Afewerki’s leadership. He hasn’t been seen since 2001. Since that year Eritrea has earned the nickname “The North Korea of Africa” and has some of the lowest scores on human rights treatment and  economic development .

“Defending fundamental freedoms calls for determination and courage – it calls for fearless advocates,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General. “This is the legacy of Guillermo Cano, and the message we send today with this decision to highlight the work of Dawit Isaak.”

Similarly in April 2017, Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega was named the IPI “World Press Freedom Hero,” and in 2012 was selected for the The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Nega has been in jail since 2011 for violating the country’s “anti-terrorism” laws which include banning journalists who are critical of the government’s actions in anyway.

According to Reporter’s Without Borders World Press Index, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Turkey and Mexico are rated some of the worst places on Earth for journalists. It seems that the  journalists being  jailed in these regions are increasingly receiving awards from International Organizations, human rights watch groups and media watch

groups to raise awareness of their plight and advocate for their freedom. It is important to note many of these awards are exclusively being given to journalists from sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East and occasionally Central and South America. Asian journalists rarely receive equal recognition for their risks despite the fact that China and Vietnam are also rated in the top 10 worst countries for journalists.

A study recently released by Reporters Without Borders, “2017 World Press Freedom Index -tipping point”,   found a trend among established democracies where the free press is quickly being limited, stifled and

punished in some form or the other. The same day that the New York Times published the piece on Mexico, the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was hosted in Washington D.C. President Donald Trump, however, did not attend as he celebrated his 100th day in office in Pennsylvania.

Senior correspondent from the Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj, hosted the dinner and commented on Trump’s absence.

“Only in America can a first-generation Muslim Indian-American kid get on this stage and make fun of the president,” Minhaj said. “It’s a sign to the rest of the world, it’s this amazing tradition, that shows the world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the first amendment. But the president didn’t show up.”

The clip of his speech went viral less than 24 hours after the dinner. Trump’s absence was also a reminder of the 45th President’s long-standing tension with the press which he often refers to as “fake-news.”

The arrest of journalists on the day of his inauguration, a ban on certain news outlets in the White House media room, blocking of FOIA requests and the administration’s continued flippant regard for facts has increased these tensions and raises concern of the legal protections of journalism under the Trump administration.

Even before the current administration’s outward dislike of the media and journalists, the Obama administration implemented sweeping anti-whistleblower laws. Furthermore, American journalists still are not, according to the CPJ, given guarantee shield protections in order to protect their sources. The analysis found that the Freedom ranking of the United States is 43 – a drop of two points since 2016.  It also found that the freedom ranking of other Western allies, the United Kingdom, Poland and even Norway has dropped while Chile is rated 33 – higher than the the U.S., the U.K. or Poland.

illustration by Skye Ali As we look to Mexico and other countries in the global south, it may be time that Western countries also realize that our free press is not guaranteed.  An inherent belief that our countries are somehow less likely to have a disenfranchised free press is an affront to the 259 journalists who are in jail or have disappeared for their decision to reveal the truth and be critical no matter what the cost. Countries around the world must actively maintain a free and open media while also working to advocate for the journalists who can’t advocate from themselves and are being subjugated the confines of obscurity, jail, disappearance and worst case, death.

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