• Sona Chaturvedi

Authoritarians Threatening Free Press

Photo Credit: Osman Orsal/Reuters. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on Oct. 2, 2018.

Journalists on the frontline in the fight against injustice are under attack. Intimidation tactics are consistently being used by authoritarian governments against the free press in an effort to silence them. There are a few incidents that make headlines, but also many others that will never be known.

Most recently, there is the example of Al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who was jailed for four years in Egypt on suspect charges of disseminating false news. Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that four men convicted of kidnapping and murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl should go free. And we have the infamous case of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in a Turkish embassy, almost certainly by order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. In many countries, journalists are intentionally made to feel unsafe.

These regimes tighten censorship, crack down on independent journalists and engage in the spreading of fake news. There is increasing reason for concern, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders Christophe Deloire has said. “What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030?” he asks. “The answer to that question is being determined today.”

The world has entered a decade that will be “decisive” for journalism, according to Reporters Without Borders. Reporters face a technological crisis. China, Russia and North Korea are the worst offenders in engaging in website blocking and Internet cutting. Independent television, radio and print news outlets are stifled, while government-controlled media proliferates.

“As state-owned TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse, or just try to maintain quality journalism,” Deloire said.

In addition, there comes a crisis of trust following growing suspicion and even hatred of the media. In the U.S., and in other countries, the mainstream media is in a precarious position, as outlets are often criticized -- correctly at times -- for covering a story for political gain and ratings.

Those come from the reporters and personalities we see daily, and it warps our perception of the press in general. We don’t often see the journalists behind the scenes, who risk their lives to shine light on the truth.

It isn’t a new concept. There have always been threats against journalists. What has changed is the speed information travels through social media, which makes getting the truth out a difficult challenge that faces stiff competition from governmental disinformation campaigns. Former President Donald Trump’s intimidation tactics against the media, such as calling journalists the “enemy of the people,” were new to most Americans. If he had been elected to a second term, who knows how far Trump would have gone to stifle the free press in this country. One can only imagine. A true democratic society cannot function without independent and accurate journalism. Misinformation can lead to confusion and violence, whether it be the Jan. 6 terrorist attack at the U.S. Capitol, the jailing of philanthropist Osman Kavala in Turkey, who has served more than three years on ‘specious’ charges, or a citizen journalist held for trying to uncover the truth about what led to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. There must be a concerted effort by the public to support independence in journalism. The world community needs to hear all of humanity’s stories, without pressure from governments that try to control their people through intimidation and manipulation. There must be more attention given to organizations such as Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and any other organization that encourages fact-based news, while protecting those reporting it. This is especially true in emerging democracies, where journalists play a vital role and help form the very basis of a new representative form of society, according to journalist Christiane Amanpour. For justice and global democratic advancement, we need to know the real version of events as they unfold.

Living in the dark is not an option. The ability to bring the world the real news is the only way to save it.