The Danger to Press Freedom

On May 3, the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day. The 2021 theme, “Information as a Public Good,” focused on the importance of a well-informed public and called for transparency and strengthened protection for journalism. The United Nations (UN) recognizes the urgent relevance of this theme and the important impact that our communications have on democracy, human rights and sustainable development. But despite the crucial importance of ensuring a free press, there have been continued attacks on journalistic rights around the world, many of them in recent months.

Freedom of the press has been targeted in Myanmar since the military coup on February 1. The military has cracked down on free speech, attempting to suppress independent media and control what is being said. The state-controlled media has followed the military government’s directives that their takeover should not be described as a coup and they should not be referred to as a junta or a military government. However, private media has refused to comply with these constraints, citing freedom of expression, but their stand has driven many journalists underground and has made them targets.

Five independent local media outlets in Myanmar have had their licenses revoked, including the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Myanmar Now. The military government has also implemented stricter censorship laws, blocked social media and hindered internet access, making journalistic work significantly more difficult. Media offices have been raided and a nightly news bulletin on state TV broadcasts names and photos of those wanted by the state, many of whom are journalists. Widespread disinformation campaigns have disseminated propaganda and unconfirmed reports as part of the military government’s attempt to restrict the flow of information and control what reaches the public.

In addition to restrictions and censorship, dozens of journalists have been arrested, charged and harassed since the military coup. According to CNN, as of May 3, more than 80 journalists had been arrested since February 1 and many have been targeted and attacked while covering protests. Those incarcerated could potentially face harsh sentences and disappear into the prison system, which has been described as a black box where the journalists are not given civilian trials and cannot contact their organizations or families. Many journalists who have not been arrested are being watched by security forces, leading many to go into hiding. As a journalist for Myanmar Now put it, “you have to sacrifice freedom to report.”

Despite the present challenges and dangers to journalists in Myanmar, many stand firm in their defense of press freedom and continue to report on the military’s violent and unlawful actions. Ye Wint Thu, one such journalist, described his experience to CNN. After covering many of the early protests, he was forced to flee but continues to report from a safe location. Like other passionate journalists, Ye Wint Thu explains how important his reporting work is for the people of Myanmar and says he will continue to do his job for as long as possible. Similarly, Toe Zaw Latt, the operations director of DVB, was forced to flee Yangon and then Myanmar entirely, due to the dire security situation. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he and other journalists never stopped reporting and will continue to do so as the crisis continues. In talking to CNN, Toe Zaw Latt also emphasized the bravery of citizen journalists, saying they are endangering themselves to ensure the truth is told. Citizen journalists have also taken on the responsibility of documenting the crisis and informing the public by taking great risks to gather and secretly distribute information.

Although Myanmar’s press has enjoyed more freedom since 2010, journalism work was still challenging even before the most recent coup. Myanmar ranks 140 out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, indicating that major challenges remain. The military seeks to suppress coverage of their atrocious actions against protestors and remove opposition media by going after the press. Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told CNN that “what’s happening in Myanmar is a humanitarian crisis of the press.” Free press in Myanmar is being stifled at a time when it is needed most to inform the people about the ongoing crisis. Despite the challenges, brave journalists continue to do just that and assert their right to report the facts.

Russia is another nation facing a crisis of press freedom. The escalated crackdown on independent media and the ongoing attacks on free speech are becoming increasingly restrictive, in a country which already had little of both. Since Vladimir Putin has been in power, there has been a long campaign to control media by restricting content and suppressing voices of opposition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian authorities have cracked down on free press, which has occurred alongside the fight against Alexei Navalny, Putin’s highest critic. The campaign against Navalny and his supporters coupled with moves against independent media convey the lack of tolerance the Kremlin has for any criticism.

April 2021 was a particularly horrible month for free expression in Russia. Police abused journalists during protests and many were detained despite fully complying with the requirements of wearing clothing and badges identifying them as reporters. Russian authorities also raided Roman Anin’s house, the editor-in-chief of iStories which specializes in investigative journalism. Anin is currently a witness in another case, but many warn that he could easily be accused and become a suspect, a common tactic of Russian authorities. Also in April, four editors of the student magazine DOXA were charged with inciting minors to take part in hazardous activities. Natalia Zviagina, the director of Amnesty International’s Moscow Office, called this raid a “new low” for press freedom in Russia. Zviagina warns that “silencing those brave enough to speak up – including students – shuts down the future of press freedom in Russia,” where being a journalist is a dangerous task.

Another tactic that has been used to restrict free press in Russia is enacting a specific law to label media outlets, as well as civil society and human rights groups, as “foreign agents”. This attempts to subdue the activities of state critics with a harmful label. In April, Russia’s Justice Ministry used this tactic to label the independent media outlet Meduza as a “foreign agent”. Meduza has since lost clients, advertisers and money and their journalists and collaborators are now in danger. The Russian government has also passed a number of anti-free speech laws in the last decade, worsening their record even more.

In a statement on World Press Freedom Day this year, more than 200 journalists from 63 countries called on Russia to end its persecution of independent media. They emphasized their solidarity with the Russian journalists who continue to do the essential work of reporting facts to the public and being critical of authorities despite being stifled and under immense pressure. The United States (US) and the European Union have also condemned the repression of journalists and protestors by Russian authorities.

Russia ranked 150 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, conveying the severity of the state’s attempts to silence independent media and censor information. The already harsh grip on independent journalism has tightened. To create a free press, Russian authorities must end their harassment of journalists, remove restrictions on independent media, cease using the “foreign agents” law and allow journalism to operate free of state constraints.

Challenges and restrictions on press freedom go well beyond Myanmar and Russia. According to the World Press Freedom Index Report, 2020 saw a new high for the number of journalists in prison globally, partially due to widespread government crackdowns on COVID-19 coverage and reporting on political unrest movements. In 2020, for the second year in a row, China was the world’s worst jailer of journalists and remains a top incarcerator in 2021. Following China was Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Belarus and Ethiopia experienced significant increases in their numbers of imprisoned journalists. In the 2021 Index, China ranked fourth to last overall, followed by the totalitarian countries Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. The report showed that Chinese authorities continue to heavily censor the internet and their propaganda and surveillance are at “unprecedented levels”. Similar to many other nations, China has taken advantage of the pandemic to gain greater control over information, placing massive restrictions and even complete blocks on free speech and independent, factual reporting.

At the same time as some states are pursuing imprisonment and censorship, there has been a distinct lack of protection and support from other global leaders for the role of independent journalism and democratic values. Perhaps most notably, former US President Donald Trump perpetuated the rhetoric of “fake news,” applying the title to any news that didn’t suit him. This tactic has been adopted by other leaders, such as in Egypt and Malaysia, further perpetuating the dangerous spiral. Simply being able to dismiss investigative, critical and factual reporting with a label of “fake news” is an unacceptable precedent that hinders democratic values and poses potentially long-term threats to journalistic integrity and press freedom.

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index labelled only 7%, or 12, of the 180 countries as offering favourable environments to journalism, while 73% of the 180 countries either completely or partially blocked journalism. Both statistics show the severity and breadth of the current dangers to press freedom. The critical role in society fulfilled by journalists who produce and disseminate truthful information cannot be overstated. An independent and functioning media is essential to democratic and free societies. The rise in the number of attacks and arrests of journalists during both the pandemic and periods of political upheaval has weakened protections on freedom of expression; a trend that must be stopped. Journalists require and deserve greater transparency and an independent media, able to work safely, should be supported, not attacked. As 2021’s World Press Freedom Day reminded us, information is a public good and journalists are the ones who provide it.