In her address to welcome media chiefs from around the world assembled at the IPI World Congress currently under way in Cape Point, South Africa, International Press Institute Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie made bare the harsh realities befalling the media around the world.
Delivering a statement entitled The State of Press Freedom, the IPI executive director said the print and electronic media, as well as the digital and social media, have faced several attacks and repressive laws from one country to another across a wide scope of nations and regions, including Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and the United States of America.
“Twenty years ago, the vast majority of South Africans had few rights, were excluded from the country’s immense prosperity, and the media were under horrific pressure not to rock the boat. In many other African nations - like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania - journalists struggled under the grip of strongmen. Today, these countries boast some of the most dynamic media markets on the continent,” McKenzie said.
“Twenty years ago, we were welcoming new IPI members from a wave of young democracies in Europe … and celebrating the media’s role as guardian of the transition to democracy in many parts of Latin America.
“Twenty years ago, many of the world’s strongest media were found in the leading economic powers. Today, as they struggle to find their place in the digital world, traditional and new media are thriving in many parts of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East - and might grow even more if freed of the clutches of government control.”
For all the changes these past two decades, McKenzie notes, the challenges have not gone away -nor has the need for great organisations like the International Press Institute.
She said that when IPI was last in Cape Town, it was relatively easy to halt a newspaper by breaking the presses, confiscating the press run or putting a lock on the newspaper office.
“That still happens,” she says, citing examples of countries like Sudan, where security agents confiscated the pressruns of nearly a dozen newspapers; Egypt, where the Freedom and Justice newspaper and several broadcasters were outlawed.
Today, digital media is playing the role of the old samizdat, McKenzie notes, saying social media fuelled the Arab Spring, last year’s Turkish protests, and Ukraine’s most recent revolution, but also helped journalists stay ahead of the story.
Yet those who fear journalism have kept up the pressure, the IPI executive director states, pointing out places like Jordan, Turkey and Ethiopia, where governments have blocked scores of websites of opposition media and human rights groups for not having government licences.
While the media business has remained a profoundly dangerous one, McKenzie says IPI is not standing idle when it comes to safety.
“We’ve pushed the Mexican authorities to improve security for media workers covering drug lords and organised crime. We’ve also pressed the government to end impunity by launching swift investigations into attacks or threats against media and journalists,” she said.
“In January, an emergency IPI delegation went to Cairo to urge the government - including the foreign minister and state information chief - to halt indiscriminate attacks on journalists by the police and vigilantes.”
Yet journalists face other challenges, perhaps less violent, but no less alarming, she notes: “Governments have an arsenal of laws that are being turned against our colleagues - laws on sedition and terrorism, for instance. Criminal defamation and insult laws are another example.”
Press freedom is under siege in other areas as well, she says, bringing to focus such places as Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean, where repressive laws are set as bait to trap media practitioners and deter press freedom, with journalists in the British Virgin Islands having up to 15-year jail term as penalty for publishing sensitive computer data.
In Asia, too, press freedom has witnessed many successes and too many defeats. McKenzie says that in numerous East and South-East Asian countries, older democracies - such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, the Philippines - and newer democracies such as Indonesia and Mongolia - appear to remain stable and journalism remains strong in its watchdog function.“Nevertheless, threats to press freedom linger in the established democracies,” she notes, saying Pakistan, Philippines, India, Afghanistan, Sri Lankan, Thailand and China remain repressive countries.
In Europe, former Soviet republics remain some of the most difficult in which to practice journalism, she said, adding that impunity flourishes in Russia, where the vast majority of the 64 journalists’ deaths IPI has recorded there since 1997 remain unsolved.
Media in Western Europe generally fared better, McKenzie says, but journalists in Italy still faced attacks and intimidation, as well as the very real threat of imprisonment under criminal defamation provisions – provisions with analogues in criminal codes across the continent.
Regarding the UK and the US, the IPI executive director states: “As the United Kingdom continued to deal with fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and disclosures by Edward Snowden, IPI and other leading international press freedom groups warned of the dangers of previously unthinkable regulatory proposals and of criminal investigations targeting The Guardian, reminding Prime Minister David Cameron that his government’s actions could be used to justify media restrictions elsewhere in the world.
“The United States was the scene of similarly unthinkable developments. In addition to Snowden’s disclosures, the Justice Department acknowledged that it secretly subpoenaed Associated Press journalists’ records and obtained a warrant for a Fox News reporter’s private communications on the grounds that talking a State Department official into sharing information on North Korea made the journalist a co-conspirator to espionage.
“U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines on handling investigations involving reporters, but federal prosecutors continued to argue in court that the First Amendment creates no privilege, at least in criminal cases, allowing journalists to protect a confidential source’s identity. Senators considered enacting a federal law on source confidentiality, but a bill to do so remains stalled – the victim of a political process paralysed by partisan strife.
“Meanwhile, the White House’s efforts to control news coverage led 38 U.S. media organisations to sign a letter protesting limits on photojournalists’ access to the president.”