Assault On Media Continues Across The Globe

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By Ajay Ghosh

“Finally it is also an important right in a free society to be freely allowed to contribute to society’s well-being. However, if that is to occur, it must be possible for society’s state of affairs to become known to everyone, and it must be possible for everyone to speak his mind freely about it. Where this is lacking, liberty is not worth its name,” Peter Forsskål, a philosopher, theologian, botanist, and orientalist wrote in his pamphlet, Thoughts on Civil Liberty, published in Stockholm in 1759.

And, it’s noteworthy that The World Press Freedom Day in Helsinki in 2016 adopted the Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms, which is the right of every human being around the world, and its three perspectives: freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and a human right; protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach; and ensuring safety
for journalism online and offline.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and a prerequisite for several other democratic rights. It is a right, but it implies responsibility and respect for the rights of others. The role of media has been changing rapidly, especially in recent times, with the advent of social media platforms where not only the news and views of the trained and well-established journalists are published, but anyone has the right reports, post a comment and be appreciative or critical of people, programs and policies for their worth. The media is expected to be the “watchdog” of the other three branches of the government. Promoting the safety of journalists and combatting impunity for those who attack them are central elements of UNESCO’s support for press freedom on all media platforms. Media is described as the Fourth Estate after the executive, legislature, judiciary, and However, media has been constantly criticized, intimidated and their rights are taken away for being the “watchdog.’ There are many forces assaulting journalism around the world: misinformation, intimidation, pressures on revenue models, and a growing trend of autocrats attacking press freedoms. Journalists are attacked and imprisoned and their rights to disseminate news and views are taken away in numerous countries across the globe.

According to UNESCO, on average, every five days a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public. Attacks on media professionals have often been perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organized crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable. These attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest, and arbitrary detention.

The 2020 UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger Impunity stated that with 22 killings each, Latin America and the Caribbean, together with Asia and the Pacific, registered the highest number of fatalities among journalists.

These organized crimes and strategies to prevent journalists, media and media platforms are not unique to the Third World or autocratic/tyrant rule d states alone. They are occurring on a daily basis in well-established democracies, using so-called “democratic laws” as well as in those nations and their rulers who have no regard for freedom of speech and do not tolerate dissent or criticism.

It’s noteworthy, after four years of contestant attacks on the media by his predecessor, President Jose Biden of the United States has kept the media at arm’s length while being decidedly less combative than his predecessor with reporters, an approach that was on display when he attended the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this year. It’s an approach that administration officials say is deliberate and that Democrats say is part of Biden’s effort to return the White House to a more normal rapport with the media.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the Trump and Biden administrations are now going after tech giants in antitrust lawsuits, based on deals that were solidified under Obama’s watch. The FTC’s case against Facebook seeks to undo the company’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram that were approved under the former president.

Filipino American media executive and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, the founder of the digital media outlet Rappler in the Philippines in 2012, has become the target of a series of attacks. Ressa has been arrested several times. This month, with the new administration of Bongbong Marcos in place, Rappler was ordered to shut down, for being the voice of the people.

Rana Ayyub, a senior journalist summarized the state of today’s journalistic fraternity:

“The burden of bearing witness and speaking truth to power comes at great personal risk for journalists in many countries around the world. They live a relentless struggle, slapped with lawsuits and criminal cases for sedition, defamation, tax evasion, and more. Their lives, and too often the lives of their families, are made miserable.”

Ayyub points to the heinous crimes inflicted on

“Gauri Lankesh, Daphne Caruana Galizia, and Jamal Khashoggi—all journalists with a profile, all brazenly killed in broad daylight. Their murders dominated the front pages of international publications. But their killers, men in power, remain unquestioned not just by the authorities but often by publishers and editors who develop comfortable amnesia when meeting those in power. They do not want to lose access to them.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) termed the recent murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous issues expert Bruno Pereira, whom police suspect were killed by people with ties to illegal fishing in the Amazon, amounted to a “nightmare” come true. “Central African Republic authorities should investigate the threats made against journalist Erick Ngaba and ensure his safety,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in Durban, South Africa. “The security situation in the Central African Republic is worrisome enough for media professionals without additional online harassment.”

India’s record on violations against Journalists has been among the worst in recent times. A nation, said to be the “beacon of hope” and the “largest democracy” in the world dropped eight laces to 150 — out of 180 countries — on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for 2022. The index’s report notes that “with an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media.” In the current year alone, it states, that while one journalist has been killed, another 13 are behind bars.

In fact, in the last 20 years, India, which was ranked 80th on the index in 2002, has seen its press freedom ranking progressively plummet. The country profile by RSF on India also says that “the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media.”

Twitter’s latest transparency report, for July-December 2021 says that the country made the highest number of legal demands to remove content posted by verified journalists and news outlets on Twitter. Of the total 326 legal demands Twitter received globally, against 349 accounts of verified journalists, India sent in 114 legal demands. India in fact also raised the second highest number of information requests, after the US, accounting for 19% of global information requests and 27% of the global accounts specified. Information requests seek details about an account and are issued by law enforcement or government agencies.

Terming the Indian press as “a colossus with feet of clay”, RSF adds that Indian “journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials” by “supporters of Hindutva” with the situation “very worrisome in Kashmir where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries.”

If the powerful rulers of the countries use their power to intimidate the media world, the public is not immune to such ill-thought-out and narrow views. For some it’s their ideology that motivates them, for others it’s the belief in their “leader” who spreads lies and the flock follow them blindly, and for some who are so-called well educated and well informed, it’s their goals to attain power, position, and prestige in the society.

Recently, I came across a WhatsApp media posting, where a picture of half a dozen veteran, well-respected, and award-winning journalists meeting with a Justice of the Supreme Court of India was called “traitors of India” because they criticize and point to the ruling party for its policies that do not benefit the people of India, but the members of the ruling regime.

Speaking at a Stanford University event, former US President Barack Obama called the present “another tumultuous, dangerous moment in history,” where social media platforms are well-designed to destroy democracies. “Disinformation is a threat to our democracy, and will continue to be unless we work together to address it,” he said.

According to analysts, while free speech is protected by both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, these legal instruments offer governments much greater leeway than the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to defining categories, such as hate speech, that can be regulated.

Reports state. the European Union is in the midst of finalizing the Digital Services Act (DSA), an ambitious legislative attempt to create a “global gold standard” on platform regulation. After five trilogies, on April 23, the European Parliament and European Council reached a provisional political agreement on the DSA. As such, the DSA is likely to affect the practical exercise of free speech on social media platforms, whether located in Silicon Valley or owned by American tech billionaires.

Freedom of expression is a vital part of democracy, considering it does not cross the “Lakshman Rekha” of public order and morality, said former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.

Gogoi, while expressing his views on action against individuals over social media posts, said, “Now on social media — is a critical part of a healthy democracy, so long as it does not cross the Lakshman Rekha of public order and morality, be it against an individual or an institution. If the opinion is within the line (of public order), it should not be restrained…,” said Gogoi.

Adding that such an opinion should be based on facts and bonafide information, the former CJI said, “If it is an opinion not based on facts and disturbs public order and transgresses morality or creates distrust among the public for the institution, posing a threat to the national interest, action needs to be taken. Nothing can be bigger than national interest.”

Gogoi also said that the present generation of youth in the country is fortunate to have the power of social media. “It is a powerful tool, but it can be misused, which is unfortunate… Youth today, who wish to enter public life or politics must be aware that they cannot be successful unless they work hard and base their journey on facts. This is because it is very easy for misinformation to be spread…”

Media reports pointed out that in the first quarter of 2018, Facebook removed 2.5 million pieces of content for the transgression of community standards on hate speech. By the third quarter of 2021, the number had increased almost tenfold to 22.3 million. This was mainly the result of increased reliance on AI-based content-filtering algorithms. In 2018, AI caught 4 out of 10 transgressions before any user complaint, but in the third quarter of 2021, this rose to 96.5 percent.

“We’ve come a long way towards realizing freedom of expression, and other fundamental freedoms. The right to access to information is entrenched in law in over a hundred countries,” said Secretary-General Guterres of the United Nations during the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Association of UN Correspondents (ACANU). “But despite these advances, in recent years, civic space has been shrinking worldwide at an alarming rate.”

In the midst of all these, some recommend a model that would “encourage the implementation of human rights standards as a framework of the first reference in the moderation practices of large social media platforms. This would result in a social media environment that would be both more transparent and protective of users’ free speech in categories such as hate speech and disinformation. Using human rights law as the standard of content moderation would also provide platforms with norms and legitimacy to resist demands to censor dissent made by authoritarian states keen to exploit the well-intentioned but misguided attempts by democracies to rein in harmful online speech.”

Stating that Journalism and the media are “essential to peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights for all – and to the work of the United Nations,” Guterres noted, paying tribute to reporters who “go to the most dangerous places on earth, to bring us important information, to give a voice to people who are being ignored and abused, and to hold the powerful to account. Your work reminds us that truth never dies and that our attachment to the fundamental right that is freedom of expression must also never die… Informing is not a crime.”

Photo by René A. Da Rin: https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-holding-dslr-cameras-3695251/

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