By Silvia DalBen Furtado
Over the past decade, press freedom around the world has been deteriorating and the list of countries facing issues has been growing. With the testimonial of seven journalists from Asia and Latin America, ISOJ 2022 hosted a thrilling panel about the state of press freedom and the serious situation reporters are recently facing in India, Hong Kong, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
“In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders oversea regular attempts to crush the independence of media in their countries, and the impact that it has in democracies is truly dangerous,” declared Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, who moderated the panel.
Pranav Dixit, a tech reporter at BuzzFeed News and a 2022 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, started his testimonial declaring how alarmed he feels to see India in a list of countries facing issues around press freedom and recognizes how it became difficult to report from his nation over the past seven years, with the rise of authoritarianism. In 2021, the World Press Freedom Indexpublished by Reporters Without Borders ranked India 142nd out of 180 countries, one of the most dangerous places to do journalism in the globe.
“Over the last few years being a journalist in India who asks questions has meant putting a target on your back. My peers in the country have been threatened, intimidated, jailed, shot, and their bank accounts have been frozen,” Dixit said. “Last year, six journalists were killed on the job. And in 2020, some journalists in India were prosecuted for independently reporting on the coronavirus pandemic and publishing information and data that did not match the government’s own numbers.
“Prime time TV news now doubles as propaganda for the government and labels anybody who questions or dissents as anti-national,” Dixit continued. “Doing actual watchdog journalism has now fallen to small independent newsrooms like the Caravans, Scroll, The Wire, and fact-checking organizations, and all of these are mostly supported by donations from readers. Although their stories often do have the impact compared to the legacy of mainstream press, they often have limited regional resources.”
Bao Choy, an investigative journalist and video producer based in Hong Kong, was arrested in 2020 after an investigation about a social movement and the police misconduct during a protest based on public data. “Journalism is not a crime,” she stated.
“In Hong Kong, in 2020, more than 200 police officers raped the Apple Daily, one of the best-selling newspapers in the city. Its founder Jimmy Lyons was arrested, the newspaper persisted to run a bit longer, almost close to a year, but after that more editors and columnists were arrested, the company’s assets were frozen by authorities, and the media had no choice but to be forced to shut down.
“Within a year at least 10 people in the media industry were arrested under the charges of colluding with foreign power to endanger national security, publishing seditious materials and in seditious intention. In Hong Kong authorities always criticize the media as spreading fake news.
“Public data is restricted,” said Choy, adding it became illegal to access data for investigative journalism purposes. “The intensity under rapid speed of the collapse of press freedom in our city should be alarming to all of us here. Press freedom is never free, we always have to pay a high price for that, it will require internal vigilance. The media associations are quite pessimistic about the future of journalism in Hong Kong.”
Jorge Caraballo, a journalist and a 2022 Harvard Nieman fellow, was somewhat optimistic about press freedom in Colombia, even though the country still ranks in a lower position in the Press Freedom Index.
“Thirty years ago, we were the worst country to be a journalist in the world. The conflict between the drug traffic cartels and the government made it impossible for many journalists to do their job. One hundred journalists were killed between 1980 and 2000, two decades, but the index for the freedom of press is not only about how many journalists are killed, which is a tragedy, but the impact that threat has on the industry and the country as a whole. So many journalists left the country, many journalists abandoned their profession, or they just self-censored because it was not safe to tell what was going on.
“Things started changing and journalists are not being killed in the way or in the volume they were being killed before,” Carabello said. “However, we’re still one of the most dangerous or one of the countries with the lowest rank in the Freedoms of Press Index in the world. The thing is that all that environment, all those threats, all that danger, it still has repercussions on the way journalists work in Colombia.
“Fortunately, Colombia is a country in which the peace agreement allowed more diversity of voices to emerge, so you will see a lot of new digital organizations publishing stuff that are necessary and that’s amazing. But there’s a huge problem . . . it’s very concentrated in wealthy families. Three families own 60% of the market and it’s very concentrated in cities.
“If you are a journalist in a small town in Colombia you cannot say what you need to say even if you know it because you are not protected, it is not safe,” he continued. “Indigenous media organizations know that they cannot say what they need to say because they’re targeted or killed. Same with Afro Colombians. There’s a lot of silence and there’s huge. This is called black holes.”
Natalia Viana, an investigative reporter and co-founder of Agência Pública, described how press freedom in Brazil has been affected since Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018 by 55 million Brazilians supporting his promises to bring the generals back to power and his praising of the military dictatorship. “The very election of Bolsonaro was an act of violence.” She urged the international press corps to cover the presidential election in October, when Bolsonaro has a chance to be re-elected.
“Under Bolsonaro for the first time in 20 years, Brazil has entered the red zone in the ranking of the Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders. Bolsonaro’s administration has pursued criminal investigations against at least 17 journalists, columnists, and communicators,” said Viana, adding Bolsonaro has “committed 150 verbal attacks against the press in just one year according to the National Federation of Journalists and this created an environment that promotes attacks on journalists every day. The attacks are worse [for] women journalists, and harder on teams of independent media outlets such as Agência Pública.
“Just this week a draft law was proposed to criminalize Fake News but excluded politicians from being penalized. Under draft there is an anti-terrorism law that aims to make a crime to promote acts that are ideologically and politically driven. And a pro government congressman proposed another law that establishes a national registry of NGOs that receive foreign money.
“The future of Brazil is going to be decided in the October’s presidential elections,” Viana suggested. “Bolsonaro is using all the power he has to get re-elected, and he has a good chance. If the second largest democracy in the hemisphere sees it would be [an] autocrat re-elected, believe me this will affect the entire region and embolden the U.S. outright. And that’s not the only risk. Mimicking Donald Trump, our president has already said that the elections would be fraud ridden and he repeatedly attacked the Supreme Court casting doubt in the democratic system and in the elections. Please pay attention and cover the elections.”
Patricia Laya, the Venezuela bureau chief for Bloomberg News and a 2022 Harvard Nieman Fellow, updated the state of press freedom in Venezuela with the rise of arbitrary arrests and violence against journalists by the police and intelligence services that place the country among one of the lowest ranks in the region.
“For the past two decades Venezuela has been ruled by an increasingly authoritarian government that has tried to exploit the media, to impose their version of the truth in their pursuit of total dominance. In less than 10 years more than 110 Venezuelan news organizations – this includes newspapers, news sites, and radio stations – have been forced to close,” she said. “This is according to the National Press Syndicate but most notably the government has been able to do so under the protection of the law. This includes recent blanket censorship laws such as the so-called anti-hate law passed in 2017, that threatens journalists with up to 20 years in prison for broadcasting messages. They said we were promoting hate and intolerance.
“Just in the past couple of years, Venezuela’s last independent newspaper has gone from a staff of 1,000 to about 20 on top of being regularly attacked and sued for its critical coverage of the national crisis. It also faces regular shortages of everything from ink to paper as a result newspapers are no longer circulating in half of Venezuela states. These and the very limited access to the Internet and recurring power outages means a quarter of Venezuela’s population live in informational deserts and are completely isolated from news about our reality.”
José Luis Sanz, Washington correspondent for El Faro, said the situation has deteriorated under Nayib Bukele’s government. Many journalists are suffering hacker attacks, and Sanz’s phone was invaded, exposing records, messages, and contacts. “I emphasize contacts because this is an attack against journalism but it’s also an attack against our sources because the government has tried multiple ways to intimidate or punish our sources.”
“Across the years we have faced threats on security issues, but the situation now is worse than ever. The president Nayib Bukele has put us in a situation that we wouldn’t [have] expected,” Sanz said. Bukele “right now has full control of all the stations, institutions, and the judicial system. And he probably will be re-elected in 2024 because 80% of the Salvadorians support him. That’s the context in which we work and we relate with this government, a government that has destroyed any way for citizens to demand public information. Other journalists and media have suffered digital harassment, smear campaigns and stuff like media and state sponsored media, attacks against all our web servers, surveillance, and death threats. Some women journalists received sexual assaults and threats of sexual violence on a daily basis in El Salvador now.
“Since Sunday [March 27], for the next 30 days, El Salvador is in a state of exception after a dramatic spike in homicides. President Bukele ordered the Congress to suspend some constitutional rights and civil liberties. So at 3 a.m. on Sunday the government decided that in the suburb right now for the next 30 days there will be no right to association, no right to legal counsel in case of detention, the period of detention without cost increased from 72 hours to 15 days, and the government is allowed to intercept communications legally this time without the word.
“It means that right now, having an interview . . . or keeping in our phones some messages from sources, can put them in jeopardy. I don’t think things will get better in the next few years. There are Salvadorian journalists leaving the country already.”
María Lilly Delgado, a news correspondent, journalist, and media consultant with over 25 years experience with multiple media outlets in Nicaragua, gave an emotional speech about press freedom and how it is to be a journalist under the government of Daniel Ortega regime. Considered a witness, she is currently being investigated in the case against the Chamorro Foundation, an NGO that promotes freedom of expression in Nicaragua, because she demanded the right to have a lawyer with her. “Nicaragua used this case of the Chamorro Foundation in order to persecute, threaten, and intimidate dozens of journalists who, like me, managed to escape the country,” she declared.
“Journalists are doing what we call ‘Catacomb journalism’. This is a term from the story of Nicaragua when in the late 1970s, during the dictatorship of Anastasio Samoza, journalists reported the news that the dictatorship didn’t want the people to know about the repression. Right now journalists are doing a new version of this Catacomb journalism online and in social media. Anonymous journalists inside of Nicaragua and will continue reporting about the severe human rights crisis of Nicaragua.
“Nicaragua lives what we call ‘De facto’ police state. In Nicaragua people have been detained and convicted just for protesting having in their hands the national flag. This crisis has provoked almost 2,000 Nicaraguans to leave the country and we have been witnessing a mass imprisonment in two moments. The first moment was in 2018 when almost 100 people were arrested and released after months of torture, and a second wave of repression against all the position leaders, including independent journalists and media outlets at the beginning of 2021. At the present there are more than 170 political prisoners in jail including of course seven candidates that were not allowed to run in general elections and all of them have been sentenced from eight to 13 years in prison. Three journalists are imprisoned and prosecuted and they have been sentenced from 8 to 13 years of prison.
“For the first time in more than 100 years Nicaragua doesn’t have a newspaper,” Delgado continued. “There are three newsrooms which have been confiscated and taken by the police: La Prensa, which is the oldest and the most important newspaper, it was confiscated last year. Confidential and 100% Notícias which were confiscated in 2018. Right now, more than 100 journalists are in exile including me. Some of them were threatened by the prosecutor's office, because they were threatened with what they call the cyber law crime in Nicaragua.
“In Nicaragua, the government can determine what is fake news and what is not fake news and you can face almost up to three to eight years. At least 14 citizens have been convicted with this law. How do you do journalism under these circumstances? Well, it’s difficult. The new sources speak to journalists as long as the anonymity of the sources is protected because they could be the next prisoners. Journalists no longer sign their articles. You cannot shoot with a camera on the streets of Nicaragua, because you can get detained, so journalists are doing that in a clandestine way.”
Silvia DalBen Furtado is PhD student at the School of Journalism and Media of the University of Texas at Austin, where she researches the use of AI and machine learning algorithms in investigative reporting.