Freedom of expression is under pressure on a global scale. If we look at the annual reports from UNESCO, Reporters Without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, the situation for press freedom is bleak.
The number of countries considered safe to work for journalists is declining. The pressure from authoritarian regimes against free media is increasing, even in European countries that are considered stable democracies, such as Italy. In light of clear evidence that journalism is becoming increasingly dangerous, we send a warm thought to all journalists persecuted and attacked for doing their job. The winner of this year’s UNESCO Freedom of Expression Award is Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe and Wa Lone. They were sentenced to seven years in Myanmar prison for conducting investigative journalism on the genocide of the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar. After massive international pressure, they were released on May 7, 2019.
Increasingly, political leaders in many countries openly attack journalists and the media. This is true even in countries with a strong tradition of press freedom, like the U.S, where President Donald Trump openly attacks journalists. The United States has dropped three places to 48th place on Reporters Without Borders Index of Press Freedom. Even though Norway is at the top of the list, there are also problems with threats and insults towards journalists in this country. Reporters Without Borders mentions several cases of racist cyber-harassment. For example, Fredrik Solvang, a well-known public TV journalist of Korean origin, revealed in December 2018 that he had been the target of racist insults.
In the same index, only 24 percent of 180 countries are considered “good.” Another negative example is India, which has fallen to 140th place mainly due to Hindu nationalism, which stamps normal criticism as anti-Indian. Bangladesh fell four places on the index to number 150.
There are some scary trends in Europe: In countries like Turkey, journalists are persecuted on false charges daily. In Russia there is no real press freedom. New democracies such as Poland and Hungary have democratic setbacks with unsettling attacks on courts and independent media. Italy has the highest increase in concerns expressed to the Council of Europe for attacks on journalists and the media.
In recent years, we have seen 17 cases of impunity after murder of journalists in countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, and Russia. The murder of Dhapne Caruana Galizia in Malta is an example of attack on journalists in the heart of Europe. Daphne was one of the most respected investigative journalists in Malta, and she was murdered because she was approaching the inner core of government power during her investigation of a major corruption case. Three men have been arrested for the murder of Daphne, but much suggests there are powerful people in the country’s elite who were responsible for her death and remain free. This is a significant current example of the problem with impunity.
Courageous journalists engaged in ordinary investigative journalism risk prosecution in Poland and Hungary. The frightening murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is a daunting example of impunity because the suspected killers are still walking free.
Although the number of journalists killed on a global scale declined slightly last year, it is still extremely dangerous to cover conflicts in countries such as Syria and Yemen. Fortunately, there are gratifying examples of progress. Ethiopia has released imprisoned journalists and writers and jumped of 40 points on the index from 140 to 100.
Continued impunity for violence against journalists is one of the major problems. Of the 1010 killings of journalists in the last 15 years, statistics from UNESCO show in the last 12 years that only 115 ended up with legal proceedings and judgment against the guilty. This means that 89 percent of the cases remain unsolved. This is despite the increase in the number of countries responding in recent years to UNESCO’s demand for an explanation and report after attacks on journalists. But still, only 64 percent of UN member states responded to inquiries about journalist killings.
The countries on top of the murder statistics now are Mexico and Afghanistan with war zones such as Iraq and Syria in 3rd and 4th place. The killers of journalists include criminals, terrorists, and political leaders. Women journalists are increasingly exposed to sexual harassment and threats. The proportion of female journalists killed has increased by 10 percent in the last five years (to a total of 14 percent).
Additionally, less serious incidents, such as threats and harassment, contribute to self-censorship and have a chilling effect.
Local journalists pay the highest price. Although the murder of famous war reporters from the West often receive more attention, statistics show that 90 percent of all killed are local journalists, many of whom are freelancers (21 percent in 2017) who often work without insurance and safety equipment and without the support from news agencies when things go wrong.
There are two frightening trends:
- The number of murders of journalists outside war zones is increasing.
- There is also increasing pressure on press freedom in Europe.
The case of Julian Assange
The situation of whistleblowers – such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden – is a case of freedom of expression. Norwegian PEN has been involved in a campaign to stop Assange’s extradition from UK to US. In the US, Julian Assange is facing 18–point charges under the US Espionage act from 1917, with a potential prison sentence of 175 years.
I believe that the demand for extradition of Julian Assange to a long-term imprisonment in the United States should make the warning bells ring among the defenders of freedom of speech on a global scale. When a man of Australian citizenship can be extradited from the UK to the United States for prosecution after revealing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should ask ourselves: Who will be the next victim?
Originally, Assange was imprisoned in London in 2012 because the Swedish authorities sought to question him in a case in which he was accused of sexual assault against two women. A Swedish court recently ruled that there is no need for him to be sent to Sweden at this stage. Norwegian PEN has stated that the arrest and extradition of Assange will be an attack on freedom of expression. PEN International in London has also opposed extradition.
The case against Assange is based on WikiLeaks´ leaking of secret documents on US war crimes and human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010. These documents were originally leaked by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Without WikiLeak’s leaks, however, the world would not know about the massive human rights violations and war crimes that have contributed to the chaos in the Middle East today.
None of those who were responsible for the war crimes on a high level in the United States have been punished or held accountable. Those who, in the corridors of power, made the decisions that led to these abuses are naturally furious that WikiLeaks made their misdeeds known to the outside world.
Already after the first revelations in 2010, the United States began preparations to put Assange behind lock and key for his publishing activities. After several years of work to find the basis for prosecuting Assange, President Obama’s administration gave up. Obama’s legal advisers concluded that if they were to prosecute Assange, it would lead to the indictment of The New York Times and any other news agencies that had published material based on the WikiLeaks leaks. This was not compatible with the First Amendment. This case, therefore, is very much about the struggle for freedom of speech. President Trump is not so concerned with constitutional rights. After moving into the White House, he has surrounded himself with advisers who have not hidden their eagerness to punish Assange. Current Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo did not hide the fact that a new charge against Assange was high on his wish list when he was the CIA manager (2016-2017). This resulted in the secret indictment being leaked right before Christmas last year. The last obstacle was to persuade Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno to revoke Assange’s political asylum. Ecuador has now been rewarded with large loans and economic benefits from the US and IMF.
Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Press Association, the Norwegian Union of Journalists, and the Norwegian Editors Association handed over a letter to the British embassy on June 4, protesting the extradition of Assange to the US. In the letter, they expressed concern that any conviction against Assange will be a powerful warning to potential sources and whistleblowers in American society and elsewhere and that this will compromise the media’s ability to cast a critical spotlight on governments. We also fear that a ruling against Assange will in the future become a precedent to target any media that publishes leaks and information made available by someone who has violated a duty or promise of confidentiality. We need to keep in mind that much of the best journalism the world has seen is based on such breaches of confidentiality.
The battle to protect whistleblowers will be an important part of the struggle to protect freedom of speech in the years to come.
Rune Ottosen is a political scientist and journalist, Professor emeritus at Oslo Metropolitan University. He has published widely on a range of topics, from Norwegian press history, the role of journalist and media coverage of war and conflicts. Ottosen is former president of Norwegian Non-fiction and translator Association (NFFO) and a former president Norwegian Association for press history. He is currently a member of the Norwegian UNESCO-commission and vice president of Norwegian PEN.