Salute the journalists fighting on press freedom’s front line

Press freedom is under attack across the world. Sadly, I have found it necessary to write that depressing sentence scores of times over the past decade.

But I believe the situation is worse than ever, arguably because democracy itself is facing increasing threats in so many countries. There is no democracy without press freedom; there is no press freedom outside a democracy.

Day by day, as I read through my emails, I learn of more and more incidents in which journalists have been prosecuted, sued, jailed, fired, assaulted, abducted and killed. Meanwhile, laws are passed by governments that restrict journalists’ ability to operate. 

What follows is a list of the stories that have arrived in my inbox over the past week, beginning last Wednesday. It makes for grim reading.

19 July: The anniversary of the murder, by car bomb, of the Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet was marked by official silence. No-one has been arrested following an inadequate police investigation. Yet a group of investigative journalists revealed the existence of security footage in which a former Ukraine secret service agent was filmed at the scene of the bombing.

19 July: Polish journalists aired their fears about the Warsaw government’s plans to exert control over the country’s judiciary. They see new “reforms” as having significant consequences for press freedom. Dorota Glowacka, coordinator of the Observatory of Media Freedom in Poland, argues that courts may well become less willing to protect freedom of expression.

20 July: Press freedom groups joined the parents of US freelance journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted five years ago in Syria, in appealing for action to free him. Too little has been done to help the family ever since he was captured. 

20 July: The Moscow home of Russian journalist Yulia Latynina was attacked and sprayed with a corrosive chemical. Eight of her neighbours were affected. She works for the paper Novaya Gazeta, many of whose employees have been assaulted and killed in recent years.

20 July: Blogger Aleksandr Lapshin was sentenced to three years in jail for crossing the border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeri authorities regard his visits to the disputed territory, to write travel articles, as illegal journeys.

21 July: Two Mexican website journalists were named in “narcomantas” – banners placed in public that contain death threats. Both Pedro Canché and Amir Ibrahim have been critical of former governors of the state of Quintana Roo. The banners were signed by an offshoot of the drug trafficking cartel Los Zetas.

21 July: Zambia’s government threatened to close publications as part of the emergency powers imposed two weeks before by President Edgar Lungu. Journalists were told some outlets could be shut down. A spokesman said police “will regulate and prohibit the public and dissemination of matters prejudicial to public safety”.

22 July: It is one year since the disappearance in Burundi of Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with the Iwacu Press Group. He was last seen in the custody of members of Burundi’s national intelligence service. His whereabouts remain unknown.

22 July: Russia’s parliament gave final approval to laws that extend the Kremlin’s grip on internet censorship. One prohibits software that obliges online servers to block any websites banned in Russia. Another requires the users of messaging services to be identified. Press freedom advocates call it the death of the internet in Russia.

23 July: The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate recorded 15 incidents of reporters and photographers being attacked or abused while covering the Al-Aqsa mosque protests. And the Foreign Press Association of Israel condemned the treatment of journalists by Israeli police.

24 July: Two Pakistani journalists were assaulted, insulted and briefly detained by police in Islamabad while questioning Muhammad Zafar-ul-Haq Hijazi, the head of the country’s securities and exchange commission, following his arrest on charges of tampering with records. 

24 July: Faiq Amirov, financial director of the defunct Azerbaijan newspaper Azadliq, was sentenced to three years and three months in prison and ordered him to pay a fine (about £18,000) on charges of “inciting religious hatred” and tax evasion.

These are regarded as fake offences, concealing the real basis for Amirov’s conviction: his possession of books by the exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the failed July 2016 military coup. The Azeri government has voiced strong support for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Which takes us to…

24 July: The opening of the trial of 17 journalists, managers and board members of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet on terrorism-related charges. They include Can Dündar, the paper’s former editor, Murat Sabuncu, who replaced him, columnist Kadri Gürsel and cartoonist Musa Kart. They are accused of being members of a terrorist organisation, aiding that organisation and “employment-related abuse of trust”.  If the Cumhuriyet staff are found guilty they face lengthy jail sentences. Some have already spent many months in prison awaiting the trial.

25 July: Vietnamese blogger Tran Thi Nga was sentenced to nine years in prison and five years’ probation on charges of “spreading propaganda against the state”. At her one-day trial, the court was told she had posted videos which accused the state of “violating human rights”. In fact, Nga campaigned against state abuses, such as trafficking, confiscation of land and police brutality. 

Just one week’s email inbox. A typical week, I’m afraid. I could have compiled a similar shameful list from the week before and, doubtless, I would be able to do so next week. 

Week by week, journalists attempting to do nothing more than their job – to inform their readers, viewers and listeners what is happening in their own countries – face loss of life and liberty.

In their countries, freedom of expression is a dream. In pursuing it, many of them are condemned to a living nightmare. We should salute them all, the fighters on press freedom’s front line. 

Sources: Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute, International Federation of Journalists and Index on Censorship.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*