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Global assault on a free press

Volume 32, Number 3, September 2021

Scott Griffen

All over the world, oppressive regimes are seizing the opportunity to introduce draconian laws, bully reporters and end media freedom

On June 17 this year, 500 Hong Kong police officers marched into the newsroom of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, arresting five senior staff members – including chief editor Ryan Law – and confiscating mobile phones and computers. Authorities also froze the paper’s assets of HK$18 million. Apple Daily, which was founded in 1995 and was frequently critical of the Chinese Communist Party, was forced to close a week later.

Hong Kong officials conducted the raid under the so-called National Security Law, which was imposed by Beijing at the end of June 2020. Apple Daily and its staff were accused of “collusion with a foreign country” under Article 29 of the law. As harrowing as this episode was, in fact it confirmed what most observers already knew: the passage of the National Security Law was a barely veiled effort to eradicate criticism of Beijing and stamp out the pro-democracy movement in the Special Administrative Region. And Hong Kong’s independent media were always going to be a main target.

It is not hard to see where things head from here: the increasing envelopment of Hong Kong into mainland China’s censorship apparatus. The reality is that Hong Kong’s eight million people are, bit by bit, being systematically deprived of fundamental freedoms they enjoyed for decades. Even for the most hardened press freedom defenders, it’s a shock to the system. And it’s all occurring in plain sight – an open and confident step toward authoritarianism.

Indeed, journalists and experts in Hong Kong told the International Press Institute (IPI) in June that Beijing has been encouraged by the law’s results so far. The aggressive application of the law is fostering self-censorship in the media. Protests have ebbed. Meanwhile, international condemnation, mainly out of Europe and North America, has not had a measurable impact. In short: the crackdown has been a success.

China is not alone in its brazen tactics of repression. A wave of massive, state-sanctioned attacks on journalism is sweeping the globe – with little headway being made in the fight to stop it. On the contrary: as IPI warned earlier this year in a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day, “authoritarian and illiberal-minded regimes are becoming increasingly emboldened in their efforts to stifle independent media”.

Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power in a coup on February 1, has mercilessly targeted journalists reporting on the pro-democracy movement there. Dozens of reporters – both local and international – have been arrested. Detained journalists face brutal treatment, in some cases amounting to torture. Independent media face enormous obstacles to reporting, facing shutdowns and licence revocations, as IPI has reported. Despite their courage in taking to the streets, demonstrators have not yet succeeded in forcing the junta to relinquish power or stopping the attacks on journalists.

In Belarus, a raft of Western sanctions has not managed to halt the Lukashenko regime’s aggressive assault on critics, including journalists. What began with arrests of journalists covering demonstrations has grown into a full-scale operation to snuff out all media that do not toe the government line. Each week brings news of fresh raids and detentions of journalists across the country. As of July 15, 29 journalists were behind bars in Belarus, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

The most shocking attack on free expression in the former Soviet state thus far, however, was the state-sponsored hijacking of a passenger plane in order to kidnap activist and blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Protasevich’s subsequent forced confession on Belarus state TV was stomach-churning.

The episode showed that the Belarusian regime has few boundaries when it comes to hunting down its critics, a conclusion with potentially international repercussions. If Belarus is able to pluck someone like Protasevich out of the sky, and get away with it, the level of risk to journalists and human rights defenders grows – not just in Belarus, but around the world.

Elsewhere, Russia is expansively wielding its “foreign agents law” to suppress media that report critically on the Kremlin, like the investigative outlet Proekt or Latvia-based Meduza. The Indian government is targeting independent journalism through legal harassment and draconian online legislation. And Saudi Arabia, still an ally of the West, has yet to be held to account for the audacious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Just as I was beginning to write this article, another devastating piece of news reached IPI. Dutch investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries lost his fight to stay alive after being shot five times – in broad daylight – in Amsterdam on July 6. De Vries was renowned for his fearless reporting on organised crime.

It was the fourth targeted killing of a journalist in the European Union in as many years. Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car-bombing in October 2017. Five months later, Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were shot to death in their home. This April, Greek crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was shot 10 times on his way from work. (Two other journalists were murdered while on assignment during this period: Kim Wall in Denmark, and Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland.)

In none of the previous three cases – Caruana Galizia, Kuciak, and Karaivaz – have authorities secured full justice. Most troublingly, while courts have convicted and sentenced hitmen and middlemen in both the Caruana Galizia and Kuciak murders, the masterminds have not yet been held to account. Indeed, last year, a Slovak court acquitted the two main suspects due to lack of convincing evidence. That decision was overturned this summer by the Slovak Supreme Court, offering prosecutors a second chance.

Globally, arguably the single most important factor in protecting journalist safety is stopping impunity. To be sure: it is essential that journalists receive proper equipment and effective protection from the authorities in the case of threats. These can be life-saving measures. But if the killers of journalists go unpunished, it sends the message that attacks on the press have no consequences and opens the door to more. Such impunity is a root cause of the endemic violence against the press in countries such as Mexico, Pakistan or the Philippines.

It is, of course, impossible to directly link the previous killings in Europe to the murder of Peter de Vries. But the fact is that impunity for crimes against the media in Europe is growing – and with it the risk of further violence and more brazen attacks. IPI has called on the Netherlands to quickly find and convict all those responsible for de Vries’s killing. There is a lot at stake in this case. If justice cannot be achieved in the Netherlands, whose government is among the biggest global champions of press freedom, it will become all the more difficult to achieve it in countries with weaker judiciaries and rule of law.

Journalist safety is not the only area in Europe under increasing threat from emboldened actors. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party pioneered the model of state-led “media capture” in Europe, concentrating media in the hands of friendly owners and distorting the media market in favour of pro-government propaganda outlets. Over time, with little substantive pushback from the EU, these efforts have grown more provocative. Pro-government media owners “donated” their holdings in 2017 to a single foundation, KESMA, controlled by Orbán allies, allowing for a more streamlined distribution of state-friendly content. Earlier this year, the Fidesz-controlled media regulator arbitrarily denied a licence renewal to critical broadcaster Klubrádió, effectively kicking it off the air.

EU wakes up, but is it too late?

While this model was once mainly confined to Hungary, it is now spreading confidently through Central Europe. Inspired by the total lack of consequences for Orbán’s dismantling of media freedom and pluralism in Hungary, Poland’s ruling PiS party is following suit with its policy of “repolonisation” and “deconcentration” of the media. Last year, a Polish state-controlled oil company bought the country’s largest network of regional newspapers. An editorial purge followed. Now, Poland’s ruling party is putting forth legislation targeting critical news broadcaster TVN in a transparent effort to force an ownership change. A state-led effort to silence a major media organisation would once have been unthinkable in the EU, but Hungary’s success has opened the door to others, just as IPI and other groups have feared.

The EU has slowly begun to react to the spread of media capture within its borders. Notably, the European Commission has opened an official investigation into the denial of Klubrádió’s licence. A new procedure allows EU funds to be cut in the case of rule of law violations. But the question is whether it is all too little, too late. Already, more countries are at risk of the systemic undermining of press freedom through “illiberal” strategies of media capture. Slovenia is the latest, as an IPI-led international mission found last month.

At IPI, we fear a further spread of crackdowns on the press, in both Europe and the rest of the world. IPI executive director Barbara Trionfi said, to mark World Press Freedom Day: “Press freedom is under assault everywhere we look, with tactics and methods for doing so being shared and copied by governments. Anti-democratic regimes increasingly feel that they can silence the media with impunity. This has a domino effect, encouraging other states to follow suit.”

She added: “The rise in open attacks on press freedom and the targeting of journalists in dictatorial and illiberal-minded regimes around the world is an ominous sign for the future of democratic freedoms.”

The need for countermeasures is urgent. IPI’s efforts are focused on two fronts. First, building pressure on governments and the wider international community for a robust response to attacks on journalists and the media, wherever they occur. Secondly, strengthening our network of independent media to foster resilience amid the triple threat of the economic crisis, disinformation and authoritarianism. As we take stock of the global state of press freedom, it’s clear our work is cut out for us.

Scott Griffen is deputy director of the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of journalists and editors, based in Vienna, defending media freedom since 1950.

@scott_f_griffen

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