Mar 3, 2021 - Economy

Journalists face record levels of persecution globally

Illustration of a hand in a suit squeezing the letters out of a newspaper

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Around the world, journalists are being targeted at record levels by despots, eager to silence the press.

Why it matters: Experts worry that the United States' wavering stance on press freedoms over the past few years may have empowered autocrats looking to gain power and undermine democracy by going after journalists.

Catch up quick: Governments around the world have begun creating "fake news" laws or other rules meant to silence the press.

  • They argue the provisions are intended to stop the flow of misinformation, but often, they are used to undermine critical voices — especially in places where democracy is eroding.

Driving the news: Authorities in Myanmar on Wednesday charged Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw and five other members of the media for violating a law that punishes journalists who incite fear, an arbitrary action, within the public, the AP reports.

  • Ethiopia: On Tuesday, a BBC reporter in the country's conflict-hit region was released without charge after being detained by the military, per the BBC. Numerous journalists have been arrested while covering armed conflicts between the federal military and opposition groups.
  • India: Last week, a reporter was accused of "wantonly" reporting on the deaths of two teenage girls with the "intent to cause a riot." A decision in India's Supreme Court launched a contempt case against a satire cartoonist in January for "[shaking] the public trust and confidence in the judicial system."
  • Egpyt: Last week, federal authorities charged freelance columnist Gamal al-Gamal with spreading false news, joining a terrorist organization and inciting public opinion against state institutions. He is being held in detention while the state investigates unspecified crimes against him, per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
  • Russia: New legislation forced three journalists in the country to register as "foreign agents" due to their work. Dozens of journalists have been detained covering protests supporting freedom for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
  • Philippines: Maria Ressa, CEO of online news company The Rappler and a leading critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, faces a third cyber libel charge after being found guilty of the same crime last year. Duterte passed a sweeping emergency COVID-19 bill in 2020 that threatens journalists with jail time for spreading "false news."
  • Sri Lanka: Reporter Murugupillai Kokulathasan was arrested on domestic terrorism charges last year for posting on Facebook about a rebellion movement that was defeated in 2009.

Be smart: Turkey continues to be one of the worst countries for press freedoms globally under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. More journalists were jailed in Turkey last year than any other country except for China, according to a CPJ report.

The big picture: Press advocates worry that the damage done during Trump's presidency to disempower press in America isn't being reversed quickly enough by President Biden.

  • The Biden administration has recently been scrutinized for failing to sanction the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, after an intelligence assessment last week concluded that the Saudi prince approved the 2018 operation to "capture or kill" Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.
  • "It appears as though under the Biden administration, despots who offer momentarily strategic value to the United States might be given a 'one free murder' pass," Washington Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan wrote Monday.

The bottom line: Journalists around the world, including in the U.S., have never faced so many threats. Press advocates are looking to the U.S. to provide leadership on the issue.

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