In their quest to control the press, some governments around the globe turn to threats and violence against individuals who report on corruption – and even shut down news outlets entirely, an international panel of journalists said.
The panel spoke recently at the International Symposium of Online Journalism, an annual conference based at the University of Texas at Austin.
Journalists kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned
Fahim Abed, a former reporter for The New York Times in Afghanistan who is currently working independently, told the story of a reporter friend who was injured by explosion while working in the northern part of the country.
At the hospital, the man told him, he overheard two Taliban fighters say they wished all the journalists at the site had been killed.
The overheard conversation “felt heavier than the sound of explosion, he told me,” Abed said.
The Taliban don’t accept the idea of free speech, said Abed, and the group has targeted journalists, with some tortured for simply covering a women’s protest.
“After the Taliban takeover, beating, harassment, and insults became a daily issue,” he said, with some taken in for questioning.
Bopha Phorn, an independent journalist from Phnom Penh, Cambodia said that she was shot 11 years ago while reporting on a story. Before and after she was shot, she said, journalists were detained and threatened while reporting on corruption.
She grew emotional and struggled to keep her composure.
“Even with that hostile environment, there was still space for me and my colleagues to do our job,” Phorn said, a way to investigate and expose abuses of power.
Today, there is no such thing, according to Phorn, who said that since 2017, attacks on news outlets and individual journalists resulted in closed newsrooms and reporters in jail.
“The message is clear,” she said, that reporters must not write anything negative about the government or the country.
José Zamora of Guatemala now works with Exile Content in Miami.
Back home, his father, who won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 1995, is imprisoned, awaiting trial on charges of money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling.
“He’s innocent,” Zamora said of his dad, José Rubén Zamora, who has been behind bars since July. His real crime was repeatedly investigating the government, said his son.
In his father’s case, Zamora said, the point is to punish him directly, to shut down the newspaper and to send a message to all journalists in the country, he said, that “In Guatemala, journalism is a crime.”
In Bangladesh, reporters have been the victims of violence, according to Sabiha Alam a senior reporter with Prothom Alo.
“There is an intense surveillance of journalists,” said Alam.
Adefemi Akinsanya, an International Correspondent and anchor at Arise News in Nigeria, shared that she’d once had a “violent scuffle” with police. Condemnation of the incident by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the public didn’t do much to change things, she said.
Akinsanya noted that Nigeria ranked a low 129 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, as documented by Reporters Without Borders.
Journalists killed on the job
In extremely dangerous conditions, Ukrainian journalists are “holding the informational front line,” getting the story and explaining what’s going on “and fighting Russian propaganda,” said Taras Prokopyshyn, who is publisher of The Ukrainians Media.
Prokopyshyn told a story about a Ukrainian photojournalist named Maks Levin who was documenting war crimes as the Russians invaded Crimea in 2014.
“He had a dream to make a photo that would stop the war,” said Prokopyshyn.
Eight years later, Levin was still on the job in the outskirts of Kyiv when he disappeared. After Ukrainians liberated the town, they found his body lying face down with two gunshot wounds and shrapnel in the head.
Laws targeting journalists
Pinar Ersoy, Istanbul editor of BBC Monitoring in Türkiye, said the Turkish parliament passed a law in October that seeks up to three years in jail for people who disseminate false information. Critics say it could arbitrarily censor speech.
Sabiha Alam, a senior reporter with Prothom Alo in Bangladesh, said her country has Constitutional protections of free speech and of the press – as long as journalists don’t try to exercise those rights.
More than 200 reporters, editors and cartoonists who raised questions or reported on societal problems in Bangladesh are facing charges until the new Digital Security Act in 2018, according to Alam.
The prime minister called her newspaper “the enemy of the government, democracy and the people,” Alam said. After being in the profession for 17 years, she said, she’s never felt as depressed as she does now.
Guatemala’s current government is waging “systematic attacks” on democracy and democratic institutions, Zamora said, persecuting anyone who is trying to fight corruption, or promote liberty or the rule of law.
Where the government used to have just two tactics: attacking a journalist’s credibility or making death threats, Zamora said, it has moved on to other ways to undermine the press.
With tax audits, baseless lawsuits and boycotts, the government practices “fiscal terrorism” that causes journalists to lose focus, time and resources, Zamora said.
News outlets shut down, journalists leaving the country or profession
Phorn said The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down in 2017. The paper had shown a spotlight on the country and its authoritative government, she said, giving a voice to those who otherwise were unheard.
It also trained her and other reporters, she said, adding that she learned everything in the newsroom from the English language to how to conduct interviews and write stories.
For years, she said, stories about Cambodia have been told by outsiders. Phorn said that she has been working hard her entire career to make sure “that one day we will be able to tell our stories by ourselves” and “pass on our skill to the next generation.”
But the Cambodian government, which Phorn said is targeting the opposition, labor unions and news outlets, recently shut down the Voice of Democracy, a news outlet where she had worked. It offered journalists jobs with the government instead, she said.
Voice of Democracy had planned to hire her as newsroom leader, she said, adding that she planned to train the next generation to report and write stories.
“Now that opportunity is gone,” said Phorn.
Although his father is in a Guatemalan jail, he continues to write, Zamora said, and the newspaper is still publishing online. Journalists in Guatemala, he said, are collaborating on anti-corruption stories and putting the work ahead of competing with each other.
Fahim Abed an independent journalist from Afghanistan, who formerly reported for The New York Times, spoke about Afghanistan’s violence against journalists.
Journalism was one of the industries that was heavily impacted by the Taliban takeover, Abed said. Many left for Western nations, but more stayed in the country “and kept doing their job.”
Six months after the takeover, another wave of journalists fled, he said. Many have given up, unable to do their jobs and are working instead as laborers.
“At the end of the day, we all have bills to pay,” said Abed.
Prokopyshyn, the Ukrainian publisher, said threats and financial challenges have erased media in the country.
“As a result of the widespread Russian invasion, at least 233 media outlets have partially or completely shut down,” Prokopyshyn said, adding that every day, journalists see pain and tragedy and lose friends.
But Prokopyshyn said investigative reporting – both on war crimes and on corruption within the Ukrainian government – has increased.
He said he is grateful to the global community for its essential support for the press in Ukraine, which he said is also support for democracy.
“It’s not only about Ukraine,” he said.
McKenzie Andersen is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.