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Recognising the growing repression of the news media by governments

  • >> The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-09 11:12:25 BdST

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FILE PHOTO: Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa is escorted by police after posting bail in Pasig Regional Trial Court in Pasig City, Philippines, March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, comes at a time of growing assaults on an independent press across the world, as authoritarian governments extend their reach and the slogan of “fake news” is used to suppress dissenting views.

Ressa has faced multiple criminal charges for the way her news website Rappler has challenged the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Both she and Muratov, whose Novaya Gazeta newspaper has been a persistent critic of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, work under governments that use methods like repressive legislation and arrests to muzzle criticism.

Last year, both UNESCO and the Council of Europe issued reports deploring the erosion of media freedom. They noted growing police attacks on journalists covering protests, including intimidation and beatings, and the passage of so-called “fake news” laws in countries from Hungary to Russia that can be used to suppress legitimate journalism.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 274 journalists were imprisoned in 2020, the most since 1992, and said “the number of journalists singled out for murder in reprisal for their work more than doubled in 2020.” Among the prominent journalists murdered in recent years have been Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, and, this year, Peter de Vries in the Netherlands.

The V-Dem Institute, a Swedish organisation that tracks democratic indicators, said in its 2020 report that “media censorship and the repression of civil society” were “typically the first move” toward autocracy, and so “an early warning signal.”

It reported that in terms of media freedom, “32 countries are declining substantially, compared to only 19 just three years ago.”

Governments use outright censorship, harassment, intimidation and sweeping curtailment of social media accounts or websites deemed to constitute national security threats. Rights groups say some countries have restricted reporting on COVID-19, when the pandemic has made reliable, independent sources of information more important than ever.

Leaders including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Viktor Orban of Hungary have followed the example of former President Donald Trump in discrediting the press by calling unfavourable coverage “fake news.”

Announcing the award, the Nobel committee chair, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said: “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”

Rappler, the Philippine media organisation co-founded by Ressa, has stood out as a beacon of independence, with dogged coverage of corruption and the government’s anti-drug war that has killed thousands of people. Duterte has warned that journalists are “not exempted from assassination.” His government removed the country’s largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, where Ressa once worked, from the air last year.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement that Ressa’s win was “a victory for press freedom advocates across the Philippines, which remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.”

The group added that it hoped the award “sends a signal that a free, unstifled and critical press is necessary for a healthy democracy.”

Across Asia, independent news outlets have faced growing pressures, sometimes being forced to close.

China has stifled Hong Kong’s once freewheeling press with a national security law imposed last year. In Myanmar, the military government that seized power this year has arrested at least 98 journalists, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners; five have been convicted of violating a law that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news,” according to Human Rights Watch.

This week, Singapore passed a law barring foreign influence over politics, which gives the government the power to demand that social media platforms disclose user data or remove posts deemed to be anti-government. Last month, the government suspended the license of The Online Citizen, an independent website offering social and political commentary, saying it had failed to comply with rules requiring it to declare its funding sources.

In India, watchdog groups say press freedom has eroded under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has used legal threats and investigations to intimidate media outlets. This year, the government enacted rules granting it broad power to take down digital content.

The Nobel recognition of Muratov comes amid the most intense repression of independent news media in Russia’s post-Soviet history.

This year, the Kremlin has made aggressive use of a law allowing it to designate people and groups as “foreign agents,” forcing news organisations and dissident groups to pay fines, publish onerous disclosure requirements and disclaimers, and even close down. Leading Russian-language news outlets like Meduza, TV Rain and Proekt have been declared “foreign agents” or banned outright in recent months, and investigative journalists have been driven into exile.

Just hours after the Peace Prize was announced, the government applied that label to nine activists and journalists, including prominent Russian-language correspondents for the BBC and the American-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“The parliament does not represent all the people, it does not represent the minority with an alternative point of view,” Muratov said outside his newspaper’s office in Moscow on Friday. “The media represents them, and this is exactly why, I believe, these attacks on the Russian press are taking place.”

Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta is the most prominent independent outlet remaining that has not been declared a foreign agent. With extensive coverage of sensitive matters like rights abuses in the Russian republic of Chechnya and torture in prisons, the newspaper has many enemies.

Unlike many independent journalists, Muratov has sought to find ways to engage with the Kremlin. He took part in a meeting of Russian editors with Putin this year, and the Kremlin’s chief spokesman congratulated him on Friday.

But Muratov has grown increasingly pessimistic about the future of political freedoms in Russia, where he said the powerful Federal Security Service — the main successor agency to the KGB — has taken charge of managing domestic politics.

Russian analysts and journalists have speculated that it would be only a matter of time until Novaya Gazeta were outlawed or forced out of business. But some critics were quick to say on Friday that the Nobel Prize could serve the Kremlin by allowing Putin to point to Novaya Gazeta as proof that freedom of expression in Russia still exists.

— ROGER COHEN, SUI-LEE WEE and ANTON TROIANOVSKI

6 Reporters at Paper Lost Lives on the Job

During the tenure of President Vladimir Putin, six reporters for Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that Dmitry Muratov co-founded in 1993, have been killed for their work. Most prominent was Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who was shot and killed on Oct 7, 2006.

Politkovskaya, a vocal critic of Putin and his policies in the Chechen war, was shot in the elevator to her apartment building in Moscow. While a court convicted several men for carrying out the assassination, authorities left unanswered the question of who organised it. Putin, speaking soon after her death, denied any role by saying Politkovskaya’s death had created a bigger problem for Russia because of international criticism than her life and work as an investigative journalist.

Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has become the highest-profile independent newspaper in Russia for social and political affairs. The newspaper has three main owners: the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who used proceeds from his Nobel Peace Prize to finance the venture; Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent turned banker and critic of the rise of a new police state; and the newspaper staff, which owns shares.

In one of the early murders, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative reporter and member of parliament, died of a mysterious and painful illness that caused the epidermis, or upper layer of skin, to slough off, in a rare symptom caused by some drug allergies but which Novaya Gazeta newspaper concluded in its own investigation was poisoning.

Shchekochikhin became ill days before he planned to travel to the United States to share information with American law enforcement about suspected corruption and money laundering at a furniture importing business, the Three Whales, linked to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, touching a nerve on an important trend of the security services moving into business. His autopsy results remain classified.

In 2009, Russian nationalists shot to death another of the newspaper’s journalists, Anastasia Boburova, on a sidewalk in the capital together with a human rights lawyer.

In another high-profile killing in 2009, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped in the Chechen capital of Grozny and subsequently killed. Estemirova cooperated with Novaya Gazeta in cataloguing killings, torture and abductions in Chechnya and linked them to the region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Estemirova continued this work even after the death of Politkovskaya in 2006, with whom she had begun her collaboration with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

In recent years, the newspaper’s reporters have broken stories investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Their leading reporter on the war, Pavel Kanygin, was kidnapped and beaten by separatists, but nonetheless returned for on-the-ground reporting for the newspaper’s investigation into the shooting down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014.

— ANDREW E KRAMER

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