In the battle between truth and lies, we must protect the world’s journalists

The first Nobel peace prize for jour­nal­ists since 1935 shouldn’t obscure the fact that record num­bers are in prison, fac­ing intim­i­da­tion or murder

A parade hon­our­ing Nobel prize-win­ning jour­nal­ists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov in Oslo, Norway, 10 December 2021. Photograph: Sergei Bobylev/Tass

Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, the first jour­nal­ists to receive the Nobel peace prize since 1935, share a belief that the world is engaged in an exis­ten­tial bat­tle for truth and against lies. Speaking at Friday’s Nobel prize cer­e­mo­ny, Muratov not­ed sim­ply, “the world has fall­en out of love with democracy”.

He remem­bered his fall­en col­leagues – the six jour­nal­ists mur­dered from Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow-based news­pa­per that Muratov has edit­ed for 25 years – and asked the audi­ence to stand to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the jour­nal­ists of the Philippines, who have “giv­en their lives for this profession”.

In Russia, the Philippines and around the world, the same author­i­tar­i­an play­book is being deployed against jour­nal­ists: vio­lence, intim­i­da­tion, legal threats, char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion. It’s get­ting worse, accord­ing to the most recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which showed a record num­ber of jour­nal­ists impris­oned around the world.

One of them is Zhang Zhan, a blog­ger and activist who was arrest­ed in May 2020 while report­ing on the ini­tial out­break of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, and sen­tenced to four years in prison. Zhang, who has been on hunger strike to protest her unjust impris­on­ment, is report­ed­ly in declin­ing health. Her shock­ing treat­ment shows how China has used bru­tal force not only to cen­sor its own peo­ple, but to under­mine glob­al under­stand­ing of the Covid pandemic.

As both Ressa and Muratov not­ed, the threats to press free­dom extend far beyond author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries. The prob­lems are acute in many democ­ra­cies, increas­ing­ly led by elect­ed auto­crats. Violence against jour­nal­ists is an endem­ic prob­lem in Mexico, the Philippines and even India, which has the high­est num­ber of jour­nal­ists killed because of their report­ing so far in 2021. Impunity is one of the main rea­sons. No one has been held to account for 81% of mur­ders of jour­nal­ists glob­al­ly in the past 10 years, accord­ing to CPJ.

Countries that jail jour­nal­ists are becom­ing more brazen, imper­vi­ous to inter­na­tion­al pres­sure and con­dem­na­tion. Blogger Raif Badawi, in Saudi Arabia, has been in prison since 2012: con­vict­ed of “defama­tion of reli­gion”, sen­tenced to 10 years and 1,000 lash­esAzimjon Askarov died in a Kyrgyz prison in July last year. His 2010 life sen­tence fol­lowed a judi­cial process “marred by tor­ture, lack of evi­dence and fab­ri­cat­ed charges”.

Other jour­nal­ists have been forced into exile. Award-win­ning jour­nal­ists Ewald Scharfenberg and Joseph Poliszuk, of Armando.info in Venezuela, were forced to flee to Colombia after a slew of legal threats. Sonny Swe of Frontier Myanmar recent­ly took the reluc­tant deci­sion to evac­u­ate his team. A gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took power.

Spurious charges are par for the course, too. They paint jour­nal­ists as crim­i­nals and preda­tors, feed­ing into a cycle of mis­trust and polar­i­sa­tion. In July, Omar Radi, a reporter for the Moroccan out­let Le Desk, was sen­tenced to six years in prison, con­vict­ed on charges of sex­u­al assault, espi­onage and ille­gal­ly receiv­ing for­eign fund­ing. (According to CPJ, sex crime charges are com­mon­ly used in Morocco to tar­get journalists.) 

After a stint in jail, the Kazakh jour­nal­ist Zhanbolat Mamay was in 2017 sen­tenced to a three-year restric­tion on move­ments and banned from work­ing as a jour­nal­ist. He was accused of laun­der­ing embez­zled funds for the country’s exiled oppo­si­tion: a thin­ly veiled attack on Sayasi kalam/Tribunaone of the few inde­pen­dent out­lets left in the country.

In her Nobel lec­ture, Ressa spoke of “an invis­i­ble atom bomb explod­ed in our infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem”, adding: “the world must act as it did after Hiroshima. Like that time, we need to cre­ate new insti­tu­tions, like the United Nations, and new codes stat­ing our val­ues, like the uni­ver­sal dec­la­ra­tion of human rights, to pre­vent human­i­ty from doing its worst. It’s an arms race in the infor­ma­tion ecosystem.”

Ressa is cor­rect that the tech­nol­o­gy that once lib­er­at­ed infor­ma­tion has been weaponised, and turned into a tool of repres­sion. Much of the spy­ware used to sur­veil and tar­get jour­nal­ists is devel­oped and sold by firms in wealthy democ­ra­cies such as the US, Israel, Italy, France and Germany – and it is used every­where. The Pegasus project, of which the Guardian was part, revealed how that spy­ware was deployed to tar­get count­less jour­nal­ists, includ­ing Marcela Turati in Mexico and Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan, who spent almost a year and a half in jail, and remains sub­ject to a trav­el ban.

Even as Ressa and Muratov are hon­oured, count­less oth­er jour­nal­ists are fac­ing vio­lence and repres­sion. Governments that claim to sup­port democ­ra­cy and press free­dom need to stand with these jour­nal­ists now. A num­ber of new and impor­tant com­mit­ments have come out of the Summit for Democracy, cur­rent­ly under­way in Washington DC. For exam­ple, the US announced it will launch a glob­al Defamation Defense Fund to sup­port jour­nal­ists such as Ressa who face con­stant legal harass­ment and lead a glob­al coali­tion to curb the glob­al mar­ket on advanced sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies. The Netherlands com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an emer­gency sup­port fund for at-risk jour­nal­ists and media workers.

Meanwhile, the Media Freedom Coalition, set up in 2019 by the UK and Canada, has now signed up 49 gov­ern­ments to its glob­al pledge on media free­dom. That com­mit­ment mat­ters, but the coali­tion has not been suf­fi­cient­ly out­spo­ken in the face of ongo­ing vio­la­tions com­mit­ted by gov­ern­ments, includ­ing some of its own mem­bers. Meanwhile, the ongo­ing extra­di­tion of Julian Assange sets a ter­ri­ble glob­al prece­dent, because Assange is being pros­e­cut­ed for mak­ing pub­lic clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion, some­thing jour­nal­ists do routinely.

The Nobel prize hon­our bestowed on Ressa and Muratov is fit­ting and deserved. But it won’t be mean­ing­ful unless gov­ern­ments step up and assume their respon­si­bil­i­ty to ensure that the rights of all jour­nal­ists, espe­cial­ly those work­ing in dan­ger­ous and repres­sive envi­ron­ments, are safe­guard­ed and protected.

  • Joel Simon is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Committee to Protect Journalists

Original arti­cle source: GUARDIAN

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