April 17, 2023
International journalists keep up the good fight despite government attacks, appreciative 24th ISOJ audience hears
This article has been updated.*
Journalists from around the world discussed the precarious state of media in their home countries during a panel chaired by Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, at the 24th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) on April 14.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, more than 70% of journalism globally is either blocked or seriously constrained.
“This is not just a story about journalism,” Lipinski said. “It is a story about contagion and our international democracy recession.”
This is not a problem far away from the United States, Lipinski said. The U.S. is ranked only 42nd in the Press Freedom Index and the reconsidering of landmark Supreme Court case The New York Times v. Sullivan has put journalism at risk, she added.
Fahim Abed, a former New York Times reporter, said Afghanistan’s collapse in August 2021 and subsequent Taliban takeover forced hundreds of journalists to flee the country.
“The pressure from the Taliban was enormous,” Abed said. “The group didn’t accept the idea of free speech and used every opportunity to suppress journalists.”
The remaining journalists in the country were subjected to harassment and beatings as pressure from the Taliban increased, he added. Several were victims of torture for covering the 2021 Afghan women’s protest.
After six months of Taliban rule, another wave of journalists fled. Those who remain are subject to harassment and attacks. In the last year, 115 journalists were arrested, tortured or beaten and five were killed. Roughly 60% of Afghan media outlets are closed or on the verge of collapse, causing many reporters to turn to service industry jobs.
“The world is silent about Afghanistan and the country is not [an] interesting topic for the major media outlets anymore,” Abed said. “Me and many other Afghan journalists lost their country then our careers.”
Akinsanya said Nigeria was already grappling with its global image when #EndSARS, an anti-police brutality movement, went viral in 2020. The #EndSARS ended when Nigerian military police opened fire on protesters in late October 2020. The country has gone viral for similar hashtags before.
When Akinsanya and her crew were covering the anniversary of the shooting in 2021, Nigerian police took them into custody and confiscated their equipment, a move condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Along with attacks and blockages, Nigerian suppression of media also appears in legislation. Additionally, journalists are suffering financially, making them more likely to exchange favorable stories for money, she said.
Low pay and pressure from the Nigerian government make journalism off-putting to young writers, but new media outlets, such as Arise News, are showing promise.
“When we discuss the state of journalism in Nigeria, there may not be much to look back to with pride,” Akinsanya said. “There is undoubtedly plenty to look forward to with hope.”
The paper Alam worked for in Bangladesh was heavily criticized by the government for its investigations into inequality and corruption, calling it “the enemy of the government, democracy and people.”
“I have never felt so depressed as I feel now,” Alam said. “I never thought that the prime minister would ever so carefully criticize my newspaper.”
Kidnappings and arrests of journalists and their families are becoming more frequent, especially further from the capital. Police agencies are alleged to be behind the kidnappings, but actively deny their involvement.
Since 2018, when the Digital Security Act was passed in Bangladesh, over 200 journalists, writers and activists are facing cases under it. The country also has legislation allowing for the legal shutdown and canceling of publishers, becoming a weapon to terrorize the press, culminating in a ban of a popular opposition paper.
Working journalists are under surveillance and media owners are often pro-government. This causes people to turn to other forms of media, increasing the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
“We have lost our credibility to a great extent,” Alam said. “People are withdrawing their trust from the mainstream media and resting it on Facebook and other social media platforms.”
Pinar Ersoy, Istanbul editor for BBC’s Monitoring Turkey team, said the state of journalism in her country has changed as pro-government businesses continue to buy media outlets, but opposition papers have become popular.
“Authorities regularly issue bans and fines over their coverage,” she said. “Their journalists are harassed and arrested, and they are more prone to the impact of economic woes as most are not backed by large holding companies.”
But many newsletters, podcasts and fact-checking websites have entered Turkey’s digital sphere. Additionally, the popularity of social media in the country has allowed for in-depth political debate and information to be distributed.
“We’re seen over the last decade scores of journalists migrate to online platforms after they were fired or forced to quit,” Ersoy said. “Some have put together full scale broadcasting operations, others report the news on the day, coverage with interviews and analysis.”
However, the Turkish government is now trying to suppress the digital landscape by censoring content, forcing companies to have in-country offices.
In an emotional presentation, Phorn recalled the paper she used to work for, the Cambodia Daily, was known for investigating the government but had to shut down in 2017 following attacks. Attacks on other independent journalists and newsrooms, covering topics such as corruption and power abuse, led to further closures and arrests.
TV news media are corporately owned and do not cover corruption in the Cambodian government, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Journalists who formerly worked for shuttered newsrooms either turn to other jobs or take offers to work in the government, Phorn said.
“The message is clear,” Phorn said. “Don’t write any negative story about the government or even about [their] country.”
Phron received a standing ovation from the ISOJ audience of international journalists and academics after her speech.
Journalists are targeted by the Russian government while trying to cover the frontlines of the war and war crimes — 233 media outlets have been fully or partially closed, 52 media workers have been killed, eight while reporting, and 15 were subjected to torture.
A few weeks after the Russian invasion, journalists were forced to evacuate their homes and took refuge in their news stations. They continued to work under constant stress, bombardment and low pay.
“The war has numerous challenges, making work much more difficult for Urkrainians,” Prokopyshyn said.
Ukraine is currently under martial law, making media outlets adhere to self-censorship while the government utilizes TV and social media to spread its messages. Investigative reporting has increased, he said, focusing on Russian war crimes.
José Zamora, chief communications and impact officer at Exile Content, said journalists are hit with “arbitrary criminal proceedings” or exile for reporting on corruption and anti-democratic behavior by the government.
More than 25 judges, juries and journalists are in exile and many more have been jailed, including Zamora’s father, José Rubén Zamora.
“Some of the highest profile judges, prosecutors, activists and journalists have been targeted by the regime,” José Zamora said.
El Periodico, a newspaper in Guatemala known for taking down corrupt members of Congress, had to significantly decrease production to avoid further government attacks, but still publishes online.
“The persecution has strengthened the ties between journalists from different news organizations,” Zamora added. “The support of the journalism community and of everyone [at the panel] gives me hope.”
Author’s Bio: Kylee Howard is a first-year UT Austin journalism student from Waco, TX. She currently writes for The Daily Texan, the student newspaper for the University of Texas.
*This article has been updated. Previously, it incorrectly stated that 200 media workers are in custody, facing trial under the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh.