2018 was a bloody year for journalists. Including the brutal murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, 95 media professionals were killed, either as a result of targeted killings, crossfire incidents, or bomb attacks. This is 13 more than were killed in 2017, and while it doesn’t beat the record of 155 set in 2006 at the height of the Iraq conflict, there has been a steady upwards trend since the ‘90s.
Such deaths go hand-in-hand with the persecution of journalists. In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that 2016, 2017 and 2018 set consecutive records for the number of reporters jailed worldwide, with all three years seeing 251 or more imprisoned for doing their jobs. And while such authoritarian governments as those in Turkey, China and Egypt are generally the worst offenders on this account, recent events have shown that journalists are also being bullied in Western nations.
Recently, this has been underlined most starkly in France, where a growing number of journalists are being investigated and summoned by police and intelligence services. Between February 15 and the end of May, eight journalists were called to testify and give evidence before the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), under the pretext that they’d jeopardised national security by reporting on either the sale of French arms to Saudi Arabia or the Benalla affair.
These eight cases aren’t the only indication of an increasingly hostile environment for French journalists. At the beginning of April, three journalists from three separate news outlets were summoned before police after reporting on the theft of a portrait of Emmanuel Macron from the Rouillon town hall, with the local authorities initially suggesting that these three had been complicit in the robbery. Also in April, two independent journalists covering the “gilets jaunes’ protests were arrested, at a time when numerous others have complained of being denied press passes.
For the media professionals trying to operate within this rising anti-journalistic tide, the situation couldn’t be more ominous. The lawyer of Gaspard Glanz – one of the journalists arrested in April – called Glanz’s detention “an attack on the freedom of the press.” Meanwhile, the Syndicat National des Journalistes (SNI) said in May that “something very unwholesome is happening in this country. We’re witnessing a willingness to intimidate journalists and their sources, and it’s completely outrageous.”
And like France, other ostensibly free nations have been chipping away at the freedom of the press. In the US – the joint fourth deadliest country for journalists – authorities recently raided the San Francisco home of a freelancer who’d leaked a police report on the death of a public defender. In Spain, journalists were subject last May to questionable criminal charges related to defamation for covering the alleged corruption of the then-President of the Community of Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes. And in the UK, the National Union of Journalists declared in April that it was “shocked and concerned by the actions of the [UK] authorities … in relation to Julian Assange,” who was arrested for breach of bail conditions, largely so that he could be indicted by the US for leaking thousands of secret government documents in 2010.
There is, then, a very palpable sense that journalists are being increasingly persecuted and bullied, regardless of where they are in the world. As the International Press Institute (IPI) noted on World Press Freedom Day, much of this growth stems from the parallel growth in authoritarian, right-wing governments, which oppose challenges to their power more harshly than liberal counterparts. “Press freedom globally is under intense and growing pressure, as illiberal-minded governments seek to shut down critical voices and, in many cases, deliberately erode the credibility of independent media,” said the IPI’s executive director, Barbara Trionfi.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the rise in persecution has also been boosted by the emergence of a journalistic culture of whistleblowing, which increasingly calls authority to account and challenges abuses of power. For example, the US Office of Special Counsel reported that it had received 1,559 new whistleblower disclosures in 2018, the fifth year they’d received more than 1,500 and just over 1,000% more than they received in 1988.
There is reason to take heart in such figures, which indicate that more journalists have been willing to go deeper in service to their profession. At the same time, upswings in arrests in repressive nations such as China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are arguably a result in part of globalisation, as these countries increasingly enter the international spotlight and as more of their local journalists seek to report on injustices for a wider global audience. In a strange kind of way, it’s therefore encouraging that persecution has been on the rise, since at the very least it’s a sign that governments are slowly losing their monopolies on information.