Press freedom threatened in democracies, dictatorships alike

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Capital News Service

LANSING – These early days of 2022 are an opportune time to look back and assess last year’s press freedom environment in the United States and abroad.

It’s a troubling picture for journalists and news organizations pursuing their obligation to provide fair, balanced and accurate coverage of public affairs, to hold institutions of government and power accountable. to give voice to the voiceless and to act ethically amid a sea of misinformation and disinformation.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently reported: “The number of journalists jailed around the world set another record in 2021. Invoking new tech and security laws, repressive regimes from Asia to Europe to Africa cracked down harshly on the independent press.”

The numbers tell a grim story: a record 293 journalists jailed because of their work – including a Michigan journalist jailed in Southeast Asia – up from 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists killed because of their work. Another 18 dead “in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets,” according to CPJ, a U.S.-based press rights defender organization.

It’s no surprise that ultra-authoritarian regimes like those in China, Myanmar, Egypt, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Belarus appear in the top ranks – or the dark depths – of the bad guys’ roster of free speech violators. In Kazakhstan, another dictatorship, authorities detained at least eight journalists and blocked at least two news sites covering the first few days of anti-government and price hike protests in early January.

Reporters without Borders, an international press rights advocacy group based in France, said its 2021 World Press Freedom Index “shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked.”

The United States ranked only 44th among those 180 countries.

Referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol, Reporters without Borders said, “The erosion of trust in the American media and unchecked conspiracy theories that continue to flourish online will require a concerted effort by all – the public sector and private companies alike – to ensure that press freedom in the U.S. runs more than just skin deep.”

We can look close to home in putting a human face on this deeply disturbing situation. 

In November, Myanmar authorities released Detroit journalist Danny Fenster from prison. He had been the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent news organization covering politics, business and public affairs in one of the world’s most anti-human rights countries.

A military court had sentenced Fenster, who already spent five months in jail, to 11 years behind bars for alleged visa violations, unlawful association with an illegal group, and publishing or circulating comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” He still faced charges of violation terrorism and sedition laws, carrying a possible life sentence, before being allowed to return home.

But democracies are violators too. 

Democratic Mexico was the deadliest Western Hemisphere nation for reporters in 2021. Democratic India registered the highest journalist death toll of any country, CPJ reported. In democratic Canada, police arrested two reporters during their coverage of land rights protests and detained them for three nights on civil contempt charges.

And already this year, authorities in democratic Denmark summoned at least seven reporters as witnesses in a national leak investigation.

What about the United States? 

U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a partner of CPJ and Reporters without Borders, counted 56 arrests and detentions of journalists in 2021, 86% of them swept up while covering protests.

In November, for example, police in Sausalito, California, arrested freelance photojournalist Jeremy Portje while he was reporting on a homeless encampment. 

In September, military police detained and threatened to arrest Border Report correspondent Sandra Sanchez while she was photographing outside Laughlin Air Force Base near an encampment of Haitian asylum-seekers in Texas. 

And in Minnesota, police detained and strip-searched journalist Alan Weisman, who was covering an anti-pipeline protest. They charged him with trespassing. 

Undermining press freedom also includes government efforts to block journalists’ access to information about crucial public issues. For example, the Michigan Press Association, Detroit News, Bridge Magazine and Detroit Free Press sued in December to force the state Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to release public records about a closed-door session and confidential memos. 

On the positive side, two independent, outspoken journalists from the Philippines and Russia shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their courageous advocacy of freedom of expression, drawing worldwide attention to the plight of a free press. 

“I stand before you, a representative of every journalist around the world who is forced to sacrifice so much to hold the line, to stay true to our values and mission: to bring you the truth and hold power to account,” Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa of the Philippines said at the December award ceremony.

As Russian laureate, Dmitry Muratov said, “We are journalists, and our mission is clear – to distinguish between facts and fiction.”

Muratov continued, “Of course, we understand that the award today goes to the entire community of investigative journalists.” 

Eric Freedman is a journalism professor at Michigan State University and director of Capital News Service.

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