Global Press Freedom Windowsill in 2019: Gasping for Nonconformity and Sustainable Media Pluralism

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Journalists and media actors perform a crucial role in modern societies, reporting news and disseminating and sharing information with the people that exposes the misdeeds of state agencies, bodies and make state institutions accountable and transparent. They contribute by creating more fair, peaceful, and inclusive societies. The press freedom and free media is the new independent organ of a democratic political set-up what I call ‘constitutional state’ beyond the conventional three-fold separation of power doctrine propounded by the Baron de Montesquieu in his work “The Spirit of the Laws” (1748) which states that “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body of magistrates … [or] if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers(sic).” Therefore, global press freedom and free media is an inalienable part of transformative constitutionalism that survives on the right of democracy to have the diversity of opinion, the right to independent journalism, and the right to think like a journalist within the constitutional mandate. However, around the world, journalists are confronting unprecedented fear and violence in their pursuit of truth and fairness, while media freedom has been gasping for liberal space.

The worldwide killing of journalists in 2019 has recorded a noteworthy downswing; however, the global press freedom crisis got aggravated to the new heights owing to the governments preferring to punish independent journalists everywhere. State-patronized-led (SLP) violence against media and journalists in the form of stigmatic campaigns, subjective news hounding, and legal persecution has been guzzling global press freedom. SLP violence has divested the freedom of the press of its core elements such as impartiality, independence, fairness, nonconformity, and self-determination. The International Press Institute (IPI) has recorded the coverage of global press freedom in 2019 that shows an incremental trend in SLP violence such as state enacting new draconian laws, state abusing the existing laws to curb media freedom, state threatening the independent journalists for harassment and incarceration and state creating new pliant and docile media indulging in peddling state-designed rhetoric and populist perception across the world.

IPI Executive Director Barbara Triofni opined that “2019 has witnessed a clear downswing in the number of journalists eliminated to the lowest level in 20 years, even as impunity remains a major challenge. We certainly welcome this development. However, we fear it may be a direct consequence of increased authoritarian tendencies in many countries, where alternative means of silencing the press, such as twisting the law to harass and jail critical journalists while smearing independent media, have been adopted to shield political leaders from scrutiny and criticism.”Further, 2019 has witnessed police raids and arrests of media persons and journalists worldwide while undermining the international media law.The 2019 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) categorized the media climate in more than three-fourths of the 180 nation-states and territories researched as “problematic,” “difficult” or “very serious” and only 8% have a media climate regarded “good” (sic).

Suppression of Free Media Worldwide

An IPI Executive Board member, along with the founder of the online news outlet Rappler Maria Ressa was arrested twice in 2019 on cyber libel and other charges in February and March, respectively. The government of the Philippines has filed several cases against Maria and her media outlet Rappler due to its criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte and his ministerial colleagues. In Egypt, the government intensified its intimidation exercises like swooping news organizations, vandalizing free media houses, and arresting independent scribes. In November 2019, Egyptian security agencies raided the offices of the most important online news platform in Egypt known as Mada Masr that has been conferred upon with IPI-International Media Support (IMS) award for its courageous, responsible and investigative journalism. In total, more than 60 journalists have been rotting in Egyptian jails in extremely inhospitable conditions. Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein has been in detention for more than three years, and Ismail Alexandrani has served almost four years in prison.

In Turkey, about 115 journalists have been imprisoned for long as reported by the IPI-International Press Freedom Mission that recorded “no improvement” in press freedom in Turkey and pointed out the political subjugation of Turkish judiciary failing in protecting the rights of journalists. New waves of repressive measures such as re-arresting of released journalists who castigated the Turkish military invasion of Syria. In Australia, a police raid on the homes of journalists working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was conducted due to ABC’s reporting of unlawful killings of Afghans by the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan in 2017 that attracted international criticism and accentuated the inadequate safety measures for the free press in Australia.

In South Asia, with authoritarian state propaganda, disinformation, undeclared censorship, cyber-harassment, intimidation, and physical violence is the new normal. South Asiahas theworst record on the free press as reported by the Reporters Without Borders(RSF),and it is a region that is infested with all the problems that have overwhelmed press and independent journalism. The WPFI collected by RSF establishes that hatred to journalists has degenerated into violence and accelerating the threshold of fear and torture. The number of safe countries for journalists has been declining as SLP violence continues to strangulate the free media. As per WPFI rankings, the number of murdered journalists was extremely high in Afghanistan (121st), India (142nd), Maldives (98th),Pakistan(152nd),and Sri Lanka (156th).Consequently, the maneuvering of social networks in Myanmar that pandered to anti-Rohingya hate messages and imposition of the 7-year jail imprisonment of two Reuter’s journalists who tried to investigate the Rohingya genocide was a new normal.

There are many other dimensions to the suppression of free media like the Internet that is frequently subjected to shut-down and deliberate slowdown. In today’s world of technology, the Internet controls the free flow of information, freedom of the press, and free speech. In South Asia, the highest number of Internet shutdowns globally has been recorded, and India has earned the dubious distinction for the same. The Internet shutdowns are “any intentional disruption of the broadband or mobile Internet or Internet-based mobile apps, by an order of the authorities or threat of non-state party, to control communication or online content or slowing down the access to the general public (sic).” In many cases, the government gives the justification for the Internet shutdown is to “maintain law and order.”However, the majority of the shutdowns are either pre-emptive or reactive measures in the wake of mass or potential violent public protests.

Globally, national governments have been promulgating new laws in Nigeria, Cambodia, and Singapore on the pretext of national security, public order, and national integrity. The increasing influence of China is responsible for censorship in Singapore that ranked 151stand Cambodia143rd. In Poland, leading online media outlet, Gazeta Wyborcza has been beleaguered with libel cases filed by the Polish government officials while Bulgaria launched a criminal investigation against Bulgarian journalist Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov for their investigative journalism. In Africa, more than 20 journalists’detention in Uganda on 04 November 2019 and in Tanzania, a freelance journalist Erick Kabendera who was conferred with David Astor Award in 2009,has been arrested initially to investigate his citizenship credentials but subsequently, he has been booked under money laundering charges. In such a hostile atmosphere, the political ecosystem can fundamentally and adversely transform the environment for independent journalists and free press.

Delegitimization of Free Press Personnel

Primarily, authoritarian regimes are the first category of institutional structures that denigrates press freedom for their ulterior objectives, which cannot be achieved by constitutionally-driven channels. These state structures are manned by the politicians who have radically transformed the free social media to denigrate and hound free media platforms and bully independent journalists for their critical journalism. US President Donald Trump denigrating press freedom continuously and attributing journalists as enemies of the people and many like-minded politicians across the world are also following him. The framework of press freedom in the US has been tattered and debilitated by the political pillory of independent scribes in 2019. Media freedom has been confronting the criminalization of journalists covering protests, escalation in harassment, and denial of access to government-held information.

In Pakistan, editor of an English newspaper Dawn was threatened with death by the politicians associated with the incumbent government on social media due to his publishing a report on London stabbing attacks on 29 November 2019.In Brazil, Glenn Greenwald—co-founder of an online news outlet, The Intercept—faced a smear campaign of threats of violence, prosecution and deportation emanating from patronized politicians and blue-eyed boys of President Jair Bolsonaro after he published damaging revelations about the unethical behaviour and transgressions of power exercised by a former judge Sérgio Moro and now justice minister. In Hungary, since 2010, the government has been tempering systematically with media freedom and pluralism by twisting the media market and alienating journalistic community to achieve the maximum degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state as highlighted in a report compiled by the IPI-led joint Press Freedom Mission in November 2019. The report has underscored a systematic delegitimization of free press personnel by calling them as political activists, foreign agents, and traitors.

Downswings in Violence against Press Personnel

The persecution of free press on legal grounds increased in 2019, but there is a significant decline in the killings of a journalist if compared to preceding years. Forty-seven journalists have been killed in 2019 as compared to 82 and 79 killings of journalists in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Out of 47 deaths in 2019, there were 30 targeted killings due to investigative journalism regarding crimes and corruption involving criminal syndicates. However, as many as 19 journalists were victims of targeted killings in the Americas consisting of 9 alone from Mexico. In Africa, one journalist got killed in 2019, and in Asia, 6 journalists were killed in targeted attacks. Reduction in violence and murder of journalists is a positive development but impunity and culpability for past killings of journalists remain pandemic and a multiplying challenge.

Mexico turned out to be an extremely hostile country for the journalists and flopped in its responsibility to bring a single culprit to justice out of more than 100 murders of journalists since 2006, as highlighted in a report compiled and released by an international mission on 06 November 2019.This international mission was carried out by the representatives of 17 international press freedom organizations in response to Mexico’s crisis of journalist safety and impunity. However, Europe was the only region that has recorded a few positive developments in stopping impunity. In Slovakia, the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová hogged the global limelight in 2018 and prosecutors in October 2019 initiated the charges against the accused Marian Kocner and three of his accomplices. In November 2019, the government of Malta charged a local business tycoon and high ranking officials of the Maltese government with the murder of an investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galiziawho exposed the Panama papers’ corruption.

The Constitutional Court of Turkey (CCT) has adjudicated and ruled on the libel suit instituted by Ex-Ankara Metropolitan Mayor Melih Gökçek against journalist Hayko Bağdat and held that the penalization of journalist violated his right to freedom of expression protected under Article 26 of the Constitution of Turkey. The CCT opined that “it should not be forgotten that not only the protection of the essence of thought and knowledge but also the way of presenting the thought and knowledge are important in freedom of expression. Even though they are disturbing, the penalization of criticisms against politicians can serve as a deterrent factor and cause the different voices in public to be silenced out of fear of being penalized. It is an obstacle to the sustainability of a pluralist society (sic).”Thus, the methods used by many national governments around the world deviate from the core elements of the global rule of law and equality governance.

The Ecosystem of Sustainable Media Pluralism

The global press has been gasping for nonconformity and sustainable media pluralism worldwide. Free press and independent journalism are an inalienable element of the democratic framework of good governance. Omnipresent erosion of nonconformity and ubiquitous anti-media rhetoric are a deathblow to the ecosystem of sustainable media pluralism. The right to information of ordinary people emanates from the diversity of information; otherwise, it would be at the guillotine; however, in recent years, it has greatly empowered the journalists everywhere. It is important to address deliberate distortions in the name of the competition in the media market by expanding the gamut of fiscal support to independent investigative journalism. Sustainable democracy cannot be imagined without sustainable media freedom that requires a free media environment across the world. The concentration of media ownership has been perpetrated by the governments contrary to fair market competition that has badly affected the free press and media pluralism. National governments must review the availability and exploitation of state-owned resources and stop the practice of settling the multi-dimensional score with the independent media houses and rewarding pro-establishment media outlets.

It is expected that national governments ensure international norms of accountability, independence, and transparency while dealing with public broadcasting services. The administrative harassment and marginalization of the free press and independent media by the regulatory bodies of the state must be stopped. The protection of the independence of journalism, the safety of journalists, and other freelance media actors from discrimination in accessing the information and press meets. The inviolability of journalistic credentials and the ability of journalists to function and perform their role as an ombudsman in the reporting of Parliamentary working must be respected and appreciated. Any attack on independent journalists—online or offline—must be properly probed. Political intervention and influence in the media market have undermined the global free press that has exacerbated the ecosystem of sustainable media pluralism worldwide. The global community must profoundly cogitate upon the unprecedented sordid state of media freedom situation around the world and respond appropriately by taking measures in line with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter.

Where from here?

It is incumbent upon the national governments to emplace a robust normative framework on the safety of journalists. There are as many as twelve Resolutions and Decisions on the Safety of journalists adopted by the United Nations bodies such as the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, UN Human Rights Council, and UNESCO since 2012. The safety of journalists under SDG 16.10.1 has been established as a measure to be accomplished as a part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, particularly public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms. In 2013, UN General Assembly declared November 02 as “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists,” and UNESCO has been leading all commemorations that have enhanced the understanding of the safety of journalists and impunity challenges. For achieving global free press and sustainable media pluralism, the challenges of media market distortions, discrimination in access to information, opaque implementation of media regulations, authoritarian public media broadcasting and de-legitimization of journalists must be addressed by revisiting the role of international media law. 

Dr. Nafees Ahmad
Dr. Nafees Ahmad
Ph. D., LL.M, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAARC)-New Delhi, Nafees Ahmad is an Indian national who holds a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in International Refugee Law and Human Rights. Author teaches and writes on International Forced Migrations, Climate Change Refugees & Human Displacement Refugee, Policy, Asylum, Durable Solutions and Extradition Issus. He conducted research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Jammu & Kashmir and North-East Region in India and has worked with several research scholars from US, UK and India and consulted with several research institutions and NGO’s in the area of human displacement and forced migration. He has introduced a new Program called Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations for LLM along with International Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law & Forced Migration Studies. He has been serving since 2010 as Senior Visiting Faculty to World Learning (WL)-India under the India-Health and Human Rights Program organized by the World Learning, 1 Kipling Road, Brattleboro VT-05302, USA for Fall & Spring Semesters Batches of US Students by its School for International Training (SIT Study Abroad) in New Delhi-INDIA nafeestarana[at]gmail.com,drnafeesahmad[at]sau.ac.in

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