With re­porters un­der at­tack the world over, it is im­per­a­tive that cit­i­zens rally to pro­tect press free­dom, write

CityPress - - Voices -

We live in a time when hard-won hu­man rights pro­tec­tions are at risk of be­ing swept aside by a ris­ing tide of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, fear mon­ger­ing and xeno­pho­bia. The re­sult­ing global as­sault on fun­da­men­tal civic free­doms is, in turn, dev­as­tat­ing press free­dom and ex­pos­ing an in­creas­ing num­ber of jour­nal­ists to the threat of cen­sure, the loss of liveli­hood and phys­i­cal at­tack.

The lat­est re­search by global civil so­ci­ety al­liance Civi­cus shows that at­tacks on jour­nal­ists are now a strik­ingly com­mon fea­ture of at­tempts by states, pri­vate com­pa­nies and oth­ers to cur­tail crit­i­cism or re­port­ing that ex­poses un­com­fort­able truths.

These find­ings also help us to un­der­stand why jour­nal­ists are be­ing at­tacked.

Cur­rently, 23% of at­tacks on jour­nal­ists re­ported on the Civi­cus Mon­i­tor – a web plat­form that pro­vides up­dated in­for­ma­tion on cit­i­zen ac­tivism world­wide – are con­nected to re­port­ing on pol­i­tics. This is a trou­bling find­ing be­cause with­out a free me­dia to re­port on this sub­ject, we can­not know if our elected lead­ers are act­ing in the best in­ter­ests of the pub­lic.

Re­port­ing on protests (18% of re­ports), ex­pos­ing cor­rup­tion (15%) and cov­er­ing con­flict (15%) are also high-risk en­deav­ours for jour­nal­ists.

The case in­volv­ing Sun­day Times in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Mzilikazi wa Afrika is in­dica­tive of these trends and the chal­lenges faced by jour­nal­ists in South Africa and on the African con­ti­nent. He and his fam­ily are un­der 24-hour se­cu­rity pro­tec­tion after he re­ceived death threats for an in­ves­tiga­tive ar­ti­cle he wrote about cor­rup­tion at power util­ity Eskom.

City Press’ in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter, Sipho Masondo, is also be­ing pro­vided with pro­tec­tion after re­ceiv­ing death threats re­lated to his re­port­ing on state cor­rup­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Wa Afrika, “these tac­tics are gain­ing mo­men­tum to force jour­nal­ists to re­treat”. Ev­i­dence from across the con­ti­nent bears this out. This week, Ra­dio France Internationale jour­nal­ist Ahmed Abba, in de­ten­tion since July 2015, was sen­tenced to 10 years in prison by a mil­i­tary court in Cameroon for “non­de­nun­ci­a­tion of ter­ror­ist acts” as a re­sult of his re­port­ing on ter­ror­ism.

In Egypt, Al Jazeera jour­nal­ist Mah­moud Hus­sein has been detained with­out trial for more than 120 days for “broad­cast­ing false news with the aim of caus­ing chaos”.

South Su­danese jour­nal­ist John Tanza, like many of his African col­leagues, has ex­pressed con­cern about the killings and ar­rests of re­porters, as well as the clo­sure of in­de­pen­dent me­dia houses.

Glob­ally, re­ports recorded by Civi­cus in re­cent months in­clude bomb at­tacks on me­dia of­fices, ma­chete at­tacks, en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances and the use of phys­i­cal force by po­lice of­fi­cers dur­ing protests.

These at­tacks are car­ried out ei­ther by the state and its agents, or by non­state ac­tors, in­clud­ing pri­vate com­pa­nies, crim­i­nal gangs and ex­trem­ist groups.

Wor­ry­ingly, in al­most a third of cases recorded by Civi­cus, the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for these at­tacks re­main un­known. This is in­dica­tive of what UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on free­dom of ex­pres­sion David Kaye calls a “wide­spread fail­ure to hold per­pe­tra­tors ac­count­able for at­tacks on jour­nal­ists”, caused by an “ab­sence of con­cern for the role that jour­nal­ists play in demo­cratic so­ci­eties”.

This ab­sence of con­cern is also be­ing fu­elled by bil­ious ver­bal at­tacks from elected lead­ers against the me­dia. We are all too aware of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tirades against cer­tain sec­tions of the US me­dia, but less at­ten­tion is paid to sim­i­lar be­hav­iour by elected lead­ers in other parts of the world.

From Malawi to Uganda, Tan­za­nia to Mon­tene­gro, elected lead­ers have la­belled jour­nal­ists “spu­tum”, “dis­gust­ing” and en­e­mies of the state.

Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has even en­dorsed the killing of “cor­rupt” jour­nal­ists.

We could dis­miss this rhetoric as po­lit­i­cal theatre, were it not for the fact that the words di­rectly fuel a cul­ture of im­punity, which en­cour­ages at­tacks against jour­nal­ists. The deadly con­se­quences for jour­nal­ists are borne out by the US-based Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, which re­ports that in 2016 alone, 79 jour­nal­ists and me­dia work­ers were killed.

In at least 48 of those cases, the mo­tive has been con­firmed as di­rectly re­lated to their work.

Limited data avail­able on the Civi­cus Mon­i­tor shows that in more than half of cases, it is the state or its agents that are re­spon­si­ble for at­tacks on jour­nal­ists. About 15% of cases are caused by non­state ac­tors. This shows us that jour­nal­ists face a wide range of threats.

In many cases, states are at­tack­ing jour­nal­ists, are not do­ing a good enough job of pro­tect­ing them or are fail­ing to prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate abuses against them.

Op­ti­mists would say that, in many places, courts still come to the res­cue of jour­nal­ists fac­ing an overzeal­ous state. We can also take some com­fort from the fact that ris­ing lev­els of lit­er­acy, the ex­plo­sion of the in­ter­net and the democrati­sa­tion of news through so­cial me­dia is en­sur­ing that more peo­ple than ever have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about world events.

But this is not a time for us to sit back and place our faith in the in­ter­net to or­gan­i­cally lead us out of this cri­sis. In­stead, con­cerned cit­i­zens must rally to pro­tect space for an in­de­pen­dent and free me­dia.

Those for­tu­nate enough to live in coun­tries where there is at least some level of plu­ral­ity – who can read the news from sev­eral an­gles and make up their own minds – should re­mem­ber that this sce­nario is not a given. Press free­dom is a demo­cratic right that needs to be pro­tected and fought for.

In com­mem­o­rat­ing World Press Free­dom Day on May 3, we should all join in the ef­fort to make sure we have crit­i­cal minds dur­ing these crit­i­cal times. Gil­bert is co­or­di­na­tor of the Civi­cus Mon­i­tor. Kode and

Mawarire are pol­icy and re­search of­fi­cers at Civi­cus

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