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In 2020, We Still Need to Fight for Press Freedom

Takeaways from the World Press Freedom Conference 2020.

By Sophie Heigel

The 2020 World Press Freedom Conference reflects on a bleak year. Throughout this year, 42 journalists were killed while doing their job and 235 imprisoned for their work.1 These numbers are lives that for the largest part have been wiped out or incarcerated while – or even because – they were protecting an essential pillar of democracy: the freedom of expression. In an ideal world, a free press disseminates accurate information to society and provides essential checks on power. 

Yet, some don’t like to be checked. “An oppressive regime starts with journalists; however, they won’t stop there. Even the richest businessman will not feel safe if they are not supporting the ruling party,” said Aslı Erdoğan in the opening ceremony of this year’s Conference, hosted in The Hague, Netherlands. Attacks on journalists are attacks against the public sphere, against freedom of expression and therefore, against fundamental human rights of all members of society. It is the journalist, however, who pays the immediate and tangible price. 

Impunity of crimes committed against journalists is a global problem. Too often, those ordering the killing run free, not at last because they are often the ones in power. According to the UN, only one out of ten crimes against journalists result in convictions. The International Federation of Journalists has placed particular emphasis on the troublesome impunity rates in Yemen, India, Russia, Mexico and Somalia that “seriously threaten media freedom”.2 

There are some encouraging cases that are being resolved, or at least investigated. Often, this is due to the constant pressure exerted by colleagues and international organizations such as the IFJ or UNESCO. In 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist, was killed in a car bomb while investigating Malta’s then-prime minister.3 After her assassination, a non-profit organization Forbidden Stories launched The Daphne Project to continue her investigations. They finally exposed a corrupted system and the masterminds of her murder. Yet, in 2020, journalists are still calling for justice, that all those involved – in her killing and in corruption – to be tried before court.4 These independent investigations were vital to her case being officially investigated, as they countered the disinformation campaign set up by the government to spread rumours that Galizia had been murdered by Italian organised crime.5

However, it is not just local institutions but also global actors that seem to be reluctant to get involved in these matters. In 2017, Christopher Allen was murdered by South Sudanese forces. In the aftermath of his death, he was declared a rebel – seemingly to justify his killing.6 A majority of war journalism is done by freelance journalists/stringers like Christopher Allen as big media outlets rarely send their foreign correspondents to war zones. Christopher Allen’s case is, therefore, emblematic for his freelancing colleagues: being located in the most dangerous places in the world, they find themselves with little support. Three and a half years after he was killed, no investigation has been taken up, no witness statements have been collected, no other piece of evidence catalogued – despite the pressure that his family together with Caoilfhionn Gallagher, barrister and UN Special Rapporteur, aim to exert on the international community and on the South Sudanese government, who by international law have an obligation to investigate a suspected targeted killing by its armed forces.7

Had the corruption that Daphne Caruana Galizia exposed been fully investigated at the time, as the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) writes, the risk and abuses that she was facing at the time could have been reduced8 (she was the target of an orchestrated campaign of harassment and vilification by high-level political and business figures, according to the EFJ). To maintain the integrity of her investigations and her independence, said Matthew Caruana Galizia, his mother had isolated herself the year before her murder. 

This should not be tolerated in the first place. Journalists all over the world are being silenced: some by incarceration, others by threats and verbal abuse, easily communicated through online platforms. Insufficient local investigation capacities, the lack of political will to sincerely investigate, and the lack of trust in local institutions are often the named factors that deter journalists from reporting threats made against them. Threats against journalists must be investigated with contextual analysis which assesses the risk of further, escalating violence, and the journalist, if given, protected. However, especially online harassment is often downplayed by authorities, says Rana Ayyub, Indian investigative journalist at the Washington Post and author of the “Gujarat Files”.9

Women journalists in particular are the target of sexual harassment online. The Finnish journalist Linda Pelkonen received calls from a man announcing that she would be raped after some people had published her phone number online. Rana Ayyub experimented with social media and posted a full stop solely – she received a plethora of abusive comments, among many others announcing to rape and kill her; the same comments she receives on her daily news posts. Next to other uncountable violations of her dignity, her picture was also edited into a porn video and disseminated throughout India, where leaders of the ruling party shared this video.10 

The sexual connotation of the abuse that women journalists face reduces their personhood and often becomes very private, argued Pepa Bueno, a Spanish TV-show host. The issue is thus not contained to the online realm: women journalists reconsider their choice of profession, self-censor, and are limited in their movement because of a sense of insecurity. As a result, the representation of women in journalism is threatened.8 These comments and acts alike not only induce the journalist to self-censor but also discredit them and make their work laughable. Through permitting these abuses and even, in some cases, promoting them, official bodies show that misogyny and sexism are “normal” in a woman journalist’s case.

Journalists work to build the foundation for a democratic society. If we want such a community, the least we can do is to support journalism and the protection of journalists. Past killings of journalists have shown that impunity may be the default option, and that, however, public pressure and independent investigations often have a powerful impact in steering the developments into another direction. What these cases have shown, is that threats against journalists need to be taken seriously –  to prevent assassinations, to protect the individual’s wellbeing and dignity, and to save the journalistic profession. What past cases have also shown, is that governments do not always grant adequate protection to their journalists. Therefore, it is also on you and me to do whatever possible to stop impunity, to stop online and offline violence, and to keep our public spheres healthy. Press freedom is everyone’s freedom, or as Aslı Erdoğan put it during the opening ceremony: “Freedom. If you don’t know the power of the word, you don’t know the power of the human being.” 


Sophie Heigel is a first year Masters in Development Studies, @hglsophie.

 1 The Guardian (2020): https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/dec/10/42-journalists-killed-over-their-work-in-2020

2 https://www.ifj.org/actions/ifj-campaigns/end-impunity-2020.html

3 The Guardian (2017): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/16/malta-car-bomb-kills-panama-papers-journalist

4 https://europeanjournalists.org/blog/2020/07/10/malta-renewed-call-for-justice-1000-days-after-the-assassination-of-daphne-caruana-galizia/

Galizias Son at the WPFC. https://www.wpfc2020-digital.com/session/investigating-killings-of-journalists

6 https://mg.co.za/article/2019-04-12-00-parents-of-slain-journalist-demand-justice-from-south-sudan/

Caoilfhionn Gallagher: https://www.wpfc2020-digital.com/session/investigating-killings-of-journalists

8 https://www.wpfc2020-digital.com/session/online-violence-the-new-frontline-for-women-journalists-journaliststoo

9 Rana Ayyub: https://www.wpfc2020-digital.com/session/online-violence-the-new-frontline-for-women-journalists-journaliststoo

Feature Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay 

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