Why democracies must sanction governments that abuse journalists

Canada is hosting a global media freedom conference later this month. It must translate talk into action.

By: and /
November 12, 2020
A vigil is held for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered in October 2018. Yasin Akgul / Getty Images

Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, there have been more than 850 acts of aggression against journalists reporting on the resulting Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, according to the American group, Press Freedom Tracker.

Press credentials have never been an effective shield against abuse by raging police or rioting crowds. Increasingly, however, showing a media badge can be akin to waving a red flag before an angry bull.

“Authoritarian and populist governments around the world are targeting independent media, making it more risky than ever for journalists to do the crucial work of holding to account powerful people.”

Authoritarian and populist governments around the world are targeting independent media, making it more risky than ever for journalists to do the crucial work of holding to account powerful people. Many are now using the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread disinformation and crack down on those independent voices that challenge their regimes, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a May report.

Canada is a founding member of the Media Freedom Coalition — a 37-nation group that formed in 2019 at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London and is now pledging to “hold to account those who harm journalists or severely restrict them from doing their job.”

Next week, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne will co-host the coalition’s second meeting. The session had been planned as a two-day event in Quebec City, but will now be online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organizers need to ensure the summit is not just a talkfest, but that it adopts some concrete actions to protect journalists worldwide. The menu should include a commitment to impose sanctions on governments and officials who systematically abuse the human rights of media workers.

That’s the recommendation from a panel of experts on media freedom that was established at the inaugural coalition meeting and was chaired by Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, former president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

In a report authored by British lawyer Amal Clooney, the panel observed that “a growing number of governments have engaged in overt, sometimes violent efforts to discredit the work of journalists and intimidate them into silence.”

In one prominent example, Filipina journalist Maria Ressa – a fearless critic of President Rodrigo Duterte — has been convicted on charges of “cyber libel,” which could land her in prison for six years. The verdict was widely condemned and was called “an outrageous crime against press freedom,” by the global Committee to Protect Journalists.

Duterte himself has issued a clear threat to “corrupt” media workers: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch” he once told a news conference.

Ressa is appealing her June conviction. “I have done nothing wrong,” she told a webinar hosted by World Press Freedom Canada and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO in September. “I am a journalist, not a criminal. Yet this is what it takes to hold power to account today.”

Like Duterte, U.S. President Donald Trump and other illiberal leaders are prone to condemning media workers as enemies of the people, or as threats to national security or as purveyors of slander against state religions or authoritarian leaders. In doing so, they not only target members of the press directly but create a climate of hostility that encourages their supporters to attack journalists.

In North America, Black, Indigenous and other journalists of colour often bear the brunt of those threats, especially when they work for smaller, online publications that don’t have the resources of major mainstream news outlets. And especially when they are female journalists.

In Canada, journalists have been detained and even jailed while reporting on protests and harassed and threatened on social media.

As UNESCO states: “Around the world, journalism is under fire.” On its website, the UN agency says the combination of political polarization and technological change has led to the rapid spread of hate speech, misogyny, misinformation and attacks — both physical and verbal — on journalists.

Clooney, who co-chairs the high-level panel and represents The Philippines’ Ressa, noted in her report that some 130 reporters and other media workers have been killed while doing their job just in 2018 and 2019. Since 2002, 1,600 journalists have been killed on the job, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“International sanctions targeting individuals responsible for the abuses can highlight their misconduct, limit their impact and act as a deterrent to future misdeeds,” Clooney wrote. “Such sanctions are indeed, in the current global political climate, often the only way to hold those responsible to account.”

When it meets next week, the Media Freedom Coalition should act on the panel’s recommendation to ensure sanctions can be used — in accordance with international human rights laws — against governments, companies and individuals that systematically abuse press freedom. Cases could include the murder of journalists, unfair imprisonment or shutting down media outlets that are critical of regimes in power.

The coalition should also take steps to support independent media, including funding for journalism training in poorer countries, regional workshops on the benefits of media freedom and public accolades for countries that have made strides in ending abuses.

Coalition members must also look inward. A significant period of time at the summit should be set aside to review press freedom issues of the member governments.

Canadian journalists have too often been arrested when trying to cover protests, most notably those involving Indigenous people’s efforts to defend their rights. All levels of government in Canada should ensure police and other authorities are versed in the rights of journalists to cover protests and other civil disobedience without being detained themselves. Government must also commit to fix their access-to-information regimes that currently fail to ensure full and timely disclosure.

At stake is the future of democracy itself, threatened by resurgent authoritarianism and a worldwide assault on human rights, warned former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler in the September webinar. He noted media organization are also suffering financially, which threatens their ability to play their traditional role in holding to account those in power.

“Regrettably, media freedom is caught in a pincer movement,” he said, “and this can lead to death of democracy by a thousand cuts.”