A dark year for freedom of expression
By Dina Matar
Hundreds of journalists killed or arrested, growing numbers of female media workers targeted, floods of disinformation and hate speech, and ineffective or hostile governments unable or unwilling to protect the public’s right to know. The 2021 press freedom index recently published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is grim.
The report reveals that 488 journalists were detained in 2021 – a 20% increase from the previous year – while a total of 46 were killed and 65 held hostage. Among those detained, 60 were women (33% more than in 2020). As one would expect, it is usually autocratic regimes with dismal records of freedom of expression and human rights that once again emerge as the worst offenders.
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Rise in repression
The latest report notes an upsurge in the crackdown on journalists in Belarus – where opposition politicians and commentators have been targeted by government repression since the August 2020 elections – as well as in Myanmar, where the coup military action in February was followed by a crackdown on freedom of expression. In China, where the Communist Party continues to tighten its grip, and in Hong Kong, where the Beijing-backed regime uses draconian national security law to punish dissidents, it is becoming increasingly perilous to oppose the regime. increasingly authoritarian of Xi Jinping.
These findings linking authoritarian governments to human rights abuses are not surprising given the tendency of these governments to use local and global crises – like the current Covid – to clamp down on press freedom under the guise of the national interest. and security.
Bullying, hate speech
Journalists face increasing threats in the performance of their duties, whether it is physical intimidation, hate speech directed against them or online trolling. Some European countries have used the law to prevent the dissemination of information that political actors see as threatening their grip on power and legitimacy. We have seen this in Spain, for example, where parties on both sides of politics have tried to stigmatize the media and obstruct the free flow of information, even going so far as to ban some journalists from participating. at press conferences.
Such practices, which include interference in the daily work of the media, as well as implicit and explicit threats against journalists doing their work, are well documented in the 2021 report of the One Free Press Coalition which mapped such acts in various European countries. since 2014. Elsewhere, notably in Iran, Syria, Mexico, Sudan and Guatemala, bullying has created a climate of fear among media professionals. This prevents the free flow of information, opinions and ideas. It also allows for a wider dissemination of false information and disinformation.
What is concerning is the risk that such acts of intimidation against journalists and the media will become normalized, even in Western democracies.
In response to the alarming increase in attacks against journalists around the world, the United Nations has designated November 2 of each year as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The designation is symbolic – but a serious commitment to end impunity for crimes against journalists can form the basis of a legal framework that can guarantee freedom of expression and access to information and ensure that journalists do their job.
Throughout history, people who practice journalism have been bullied and attacked for a variety of reasons, from governments worried about exposure to partisan and private interests worried about their profits. But what the growing number of attacks suggests is that journalism is increasingly becoming a contested field and a space of struggle for information, ideology and politics.
These attacks violate human rights: both of journalists and the societies they serve, who are deprived of their right to information, which should be at the heart of any free public debate and democratic process. They underline the need for adequate legal protection of journalists which goes beyond the rights to communication and freedom of expression recognized in particular in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 19 recognizes everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression and provides the basis for the function of journalism, led by individuals, to be protected – independent of the broader institutional rights of the press or the media. In international law, the freedom to express opinions and ideas is considered essential both at the individual level, insofar as it contributes to the full development of a person, but also as a cornerstone of democratic society.
International human rights law requires States to respect and protect the lives of all those within their jurisdiction against attacks and threats of attack and to provide an effective remedy when this is not possible. not been the case. But so far, there is no dedicated international framework to protect journalists from physical assault or end impunity for crimes against journalists. If journalists are deliberately targeted and threatened while those who attack them go unpunished, the media cannot be free and democracy will continue to be threatened.
(The author is Professor, Political Communication and Arab Media, SOAS, University of London. Theconversation.com)