The recent attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamic extremists riveted the world’s attention on dangers to the press throughout the world.  Following the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry said freedom of the press is “under siege” globally and called for action, as did most Western leaders.  The attack on Charlie Hebdo, though tragic, should not obscure the fact that diminished freedom of the press has been a trend throughout the world in recent decades.  There are various techniques which governments and non-state actors have used to diminish freedom of the press: violence via beatings, incarceration, or murder; repression via legislation and censorship, and self-censorship by the press due to fear of violence or legal action.

 

The recent attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamic extremists riveted the world’s attention on dangers to the press throughout the world.  Following the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry said freedom of the press is “under siege” globally and called for action, as did most Western leaders.  The attack on Charlie Hebdo, though tragic, should not obscure the fact that diminished freedom of the press has been a trend throughout the world in recent decades.  There are various techniques which governments and non-state actors have used to diminish freedom of the press: violence via beatings, incarceration, or murder; repression via legislation and censorship, and self-censorship by the press due to fear of violence or legal action.

According to the Committee to Project Journalists, 221 journalists that they know of are incarcerated globally by governments.  Among non-state groups, ISIL alone is holding at least twenty, and has murdered multiple journalists in recent months.  Most recently they may have beheaded a Japanese journalist but the situation remains unclear.  Globally, at least 61 journalists were killed because of their work in 2014; this number includes both members of the traditional press and members of the new media.  One notable case last year was the murder of blogger “Lucy” who ran the Blog del Narco in Mexico, which is one of the few non-self censored press outlets that aggressively covers the drug trafficking organization’s in Mexican states such as  Tamaulipas which have been most impacted by drug trafficking organizations. 

Lucy’s murder was perpetrated by non-state actors, but states are responsible for much of the violence. The country with the most journalists incarcerated per capita is China, which has 44 journalists (that are known of) incarcerated; most of these journalists belong to minority groups such as the Uighurs and Tibetans.  The next countries with the most jailed journalists in the world are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Syria, Egypt, Burma, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.  As this list demonstrates, states using incarceration to restrict freedom of the press is a global phenomenon and is not restricted to any one region.

 Although freedom of the press concerns are a global issue, Freedom House ranks the Middle East and North Africa as the most dangerous region in the world for journalists and rate it as having 2 percent free press.  Qualitative data easily explains this ranking; just in the past year ISIS killed Americans James Foley, Luke Somers, and Steven Sotloff; Iranian-American reporter for the Washington Post in Tehran Jason Rezaian was jailed; blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia; and these are only some of the cases which received the most international media attention.  The situation in Sub-Saharan Africa is not much better; 30 Ethiopian journalists went into exile over the past year, numerous journalists were jailed in Burundi, and the Congo restricted internet usage which is another form of restricting access to information.

 One region which has largely moved away from obvious state-sponsored violence perpetrated against journalists is Latin America.  Non-state actors, particularly drug-trafficking organizations, still commit violence as the earlier story noted; however, governments have found a more seemingly legitimate way to restrict their press through media laws.  Populist governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Argentina have passed restrictive press laws in recent years.  In 2009 the Kirchner administration in Argentina proposed the Media Law, which ostensibly aimed to prevent the formation of monopolistic media entities but in practice was primarily intended to break up Grupo Clarin, a media group which was highly critical of the administration.  In 2014 the government began implementing the law after passing several judicial hurdles and the group is now divided into multiple entities.  More recently, the suspicious death of Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, created new concerns for freedom of the press. Prosecutor Nisman’s findings implicated President Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and he was killed, or committed suicide, right before testifying on his findings.  The journalist Damian Pachter, of the Buenos Aires Herald, who broke the story of his death, has now fled the country and said he does not think that he will return during this administration because his phones were being tapped and he feared for his life.   

 Even Europe has many countries ranked as not free.  For example, 20 journalists have been murdered in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000 and there are numerous journalists in jail and who have been threatened or beaten.  The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that there are other countries in Europe on the “wrong” side of press freedom rankings, including Hungary, Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria because their government’s regularly interfere with reporting.

 Secretary Kerry and others were right to call for global action to protect freedom of the press throughout the world because a democratic society cannot be maintained without a free press.  Although the US press can be partisan, inaccurate, or too focused on any one subject, at least it has the freedom to investigate the government, hold it accountable, and inform the general public.  One can hope that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy governments with free presses do ask their fellow leaders about the incarcerated, murdered, or repressed journalists in their nations instead of calling for action without following through.