Should we be celebrating press freedom at all today? Last year a record number of journalists were jailed worldwide. Five out of every six of us live in a country where press freedom has declined over the past five years; some 400 journalists have been killed in the same time frame. Vladimir Putin has crushed the last vestiges of independent journalism inside Russia. And from India to the Philippines to the UK, there’s been a sharp rise in coordinated, misogynist attacks against female journalists.
There seem few causes for celebration, then. And yet this year, I’m daring to believe there’ll be some cautious reasons for hope.
For a start, there’s the bravery of our many colleagues who keep reporting, even in the most hostile circumstances. In Peru in recent weeks, the legendary Gustavo Gorriti and IDL-Reporteros, an online newspaper based in Lima, have endured break-ins, physical assaults and smear campaigns, but they keep going. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, but that doesn’t stop the investigative journalism organisation Quinto Elemento and their partners from exposing mass graves, money laundering and much more. When the offices of Canal de Moçambique and Canal Moz in Mozambique were ransacked and set ablaze, the editor-in-chief, Matías Guente, and his team refused to be cowed. “We will not bow to fire,” ran the paper’s headline that week.
There’s plenty of courage and determination to celebrate, then – but, also, increasing ingenuity. In the Philippines, Nobel prizewinner Maria Ressa faces up to 100 years in jail on trumped-up charges, yet she and her Rappler colleagues aren’t just continuing to report the news and embarrass corrupt politicians. They’re building new technology for newsrooms, and have assembled a powerful coalition, ranging from the Catholic church to rural newspapers, to call out lies and hold presidential candidates accountable ahead of next week’s crucial election. Their mantra? “In crisis, we innovate.”
Meanwhile, Paris-based Forbidden Stories is unveiling the Safe Box Network: a secure digital system where journalists in danger can keep their stories safe. If something happens to the reporter, their work will be published nonetheless – both a handy insurance scheme, and a big disincentive for those tempted to harm journalists in the first place. “Now, killing the journalist won’t kill the story,” as Forbidden Stories’ founder, Laurent Richard, told me recently.
Indeed, as the violence, intimidation and censorship have got worse, many journalists and their allies in law, tech, activism, advertising and elsewhere have just got more creative. Networks have sprung up to deploy targeted ads, mirror sites, free VPNs and much more to deliver accurate news about the war inside Russia, despite draconian Kremlin censorship. Journalists forced to flee are teaming up with other news outlets and building new operations across Europe.
The war has also, finally, forced politicians to try to curb the abuse of our courts to silence and intimidate journalists. In March, Dominic Raab announced plans aimed at deterring strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), a tool often used by oligarchs against journalists. Britain’s days as the capital of “libel tourism” may also be numbered thanks to similar European Union plans, announced weeks later, which would also refuse to recognise judgments from outside the EU – including London. The US also announced a global defamation defence fund late last year.
While not perfect, Europe’s landmark new deals on tech regulation could be a big step forward in curbing the harassment and abuse of journalists online, too, by forcing big tech companies to clean up the disinformation and hate speech that pollute our news environment. We may also see meaningful action on spyware used to target and surveil journalists, after the Pegasus scandal earlier this year. Critically, big tech firms such as Apple have committed action and money to the cause, as have governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The devil will be in the detail, but it is at least movement in the right direction.
It shouldn’t have taken Ukraine’s epic human tragedy or scandals such as Pegasus to force action from our leaders. And there have been other, far less desirable consequences of Putin’s war. Facing constricting energy supplies, Boris Johnson duly trotted off to Riyadh to court Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman, ignoring the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A month later Johnson was in Delhi, cosying up to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, without so much as a mention of Rana Ayyub, Fahad Shah, Sajad Gul or the countless other journalists in Kashmir alone who have been arrested and jailed. “Global Britain” should be so much better than this.
The situation remains dire. We can fete the bravery of journalists such as Ayyub, who stand tall in the face of relentless attacks from Modi’s ruling BJP. “I am proud of the fact that the government is scared of me and my words because somewhere it is impacting them, my truth is impacting them. I’m glad,” she told the Perugia journalism festival last month. But the ongoing persecution has taken a huge toll on her health and her ability to work. Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta in Moscow was finally forced to suspend operations in recent weeks and its editor, Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov, was brutally attacked by Putin’s thugs.
Yet from journalists devising their own insurance schemes to keep colleagues alive, to lawmakers who are finally feeling pressure to act, there is much to fight for – and win – in the coming weeks and months. As Muratov said of journalism in his Nobel speech just weeks before Russian tanks swept into Ukraine: “Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and strong grip. But we are the prerequisite for progress. We are the antidote against tyranny.”