Threats against independent media are increasing globally. From a lack of support for journalists in hostile environments to growing government censorship and oppression of reporters, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of press freedom.
Nevertheless, we can learn from the journalists who work diligently to combat these trends, said Aliza Applebaum, ICFJ program director, during a recent ICFJ Global Crisis Reporting Forum webinar held in collaboration with Voice of America (VOA).
Applebaum joined Sirwan Kajjo, VOA press freedom reporter covering Ukraine and Russia, Samiullah Mahdi, ICFJ program director and ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award winner from Afghanistan, and Salem Solomon, VOA News Center editor who has covered press freedom issues across Africa.
“In most of the countries in conflict, the first casualty is truth,” said Solomon.
Here are some key takeaways from the event:
The state of press freedom
Press freedom has declined globally, placing pressure both on journalists and audiences who struggle to access factual, credible information in their countries.
“Hostility towards the media has been higher than it has been in recent history. There is the discrediting of the media domestically and internationally,” said Solomon, specifically highlighting media repression in Ethiopia during the ongoing conflict in Tigray province.
Across the globe, internet access has been restricted, governments have forced news organizations to shut down and journalists have faced threats, imprisonment and even death for standing up to those in power and holding human rights abusers to account. In Afghanistan threats have led the few journalists still left on the ground to self-censor out of fear of Taliban reprisal, according to Mahdi.
“The media aspect of [hostile governments] is to amplify propaganda; and the power of propaganda in an environment where there is no independent journalism is very dangerous,” said Solomon.
The role of the international community
By protecting local journalists and pushing governments to reverse laws that target media workers, the international community can play a crucial role in promoting press freedom in dangerous situations.
“The international community has the leverage to [promote] freedom of expression,” said Mahdi, lamenting, however, that “it has not been used.”
Journalists on the ground face threats in the midst of conflict, too. They must often choose between fleeing into exile or facing punishment if they stay put.. When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, journalists in Russia and Ukraine alike were among the Russian government’s first targets as they attempted to stifle factual reporting on the war’s impacts and alleged atrocities. This situation was similar to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War, said Kajjo, highlighting how Syrian journalists have been advising colleagues in Ukraine on how to cover the conflict.
Kajjo also noted the importance of supporting local coverage of the Russian invasion. “The new initiatives that media groups and international bodies are doing would be more effective if they designed them in a way that they can support local media outlets,” he said, citing the amplification of rural voices during the Syrian Civil War, which can be replicated in Ukraine.
Learning from journalists
Increasingly, governments have wrestled control of narratives, regularly succeeding. “There is a lack of media literacy in most parts of [Africa] and that environment is exploited,” said Solomon. Despite this, journalists across the world have collaborated and found ways to circumvent censorship to deliver stories that readers find important.
Exiled journalists have played an integral role in collaborations with journalists that have stayed behind, for example. The advantage of having a network on the ground and language capability has enabled reporters from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Ethiopia and more to report independently and effectively on critical issues in their home countries even from abroad, according to the panel.
Many journalists have also learned to use technology to their advantage to verify data and further amplify stories, said Solomon. Citizen journalism is another tool used on the ground, added Applebaum: “These informal networks have been successful, and it would be interesting to see how these ecosystems evolve.”