“This is the most dangerous time in history for journalists.”
That was the warning given last week by the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, at the launch event in Oxford of the annual Attacks on the Press report – a study based on information from journalists, academics and activists across the globe.
More journalists have been jailed than ever since records started in 1990. In the past six months BBC journalists have been shot at in Ukraine and Mosul, attacked in China and forced to sign a confession for conducting an ‘illegal interview’, detained in Turkey without explanation and branded ‘fake news’ by US president Donald Trump’s administration.
In the light of new technological forms of censorship, the US president’s unprecedented assault on the media, and a recent shift away from democracy in Turkey, panel members at the launch argued this year’s report is more essential than ever. Alan Rusbridger, former editor in chief of The Guardian, highlighted recent challenges to media freedom in the West: “for the people who used to be held up as the guards to press freedom to be behaving as they are, think what kind of example that gives to Turkey, or Kenya, or anybody else”.
From left: Jon Williams, RTE; Joel Simon, CPJ; Lindsey Hilsum, Channel Four News; Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor; Razia Iqbal, BBC.
There are three new challenges to global information identified in this year’s report.
The first, labelled ‘Repression 2.0’, is the use of the online technology to extend previous methods of control, from state censorship to the identification and subsequent imprisonment of critics.
The second, named ‘Masked political control’, is when, as Simon put it, “political leaders try to hide repressive policies behind a democratic façade”. He cited the Turkish president Erdoğan’s recent referendum on adopting a presidential system of government as an important example.
Finally, ‘Technology capture’ means using the latest technology to disrupt journalists and stop people’s media access.
The report says all pose significant problems for journalists across the world.
Censorship has taken on a more elusive guise in the digital world. Censorship systems of the past were clearer to pinpoint whereas in today’s world, as Joel pointed out: “we don’t always know what we don’t know.
”Journalists need to find a way to persuade people that amongst the continuous hubbub of online chatter, they are the ones to listen to. As Rusbridger put it: “we have to find a reason why people would come to us rather than the multiplicity of sources available elsewhere.”
Another growing problem for journalists, identified in the report, is the difficulty of guaranteeing safety to their sources because of increased surveillance. “It is almost impossible now to guarantee a source or a stringer anonymity”, said Rusbridger.
The report claims that the Chinese authorities are trying to stem criticism by affecting the credit rating of dissenting voices.
Australian protest against online censorship in China
The panel agreed a normalisation of hostility towards journalists and downgrading of the value of facts themselves has taken place across Western countries, including in the UK, which has fallen to fortieth in the World Press Freedom Index. This is a significant drop of ten places since 2013.
Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’s international editor, argued that much of the press themselves have adopted a negative attitude to freedom of speech – citing recent headlines from the Daily Mail such as ‘crush the saboteurs’.
The unanimity of the room was challenged by a point from Hilsum, asking how many people present regularly read the Daily Mail. Only one person in the audience raised their hand (admitting only to reading the paper for research purposes) – highlighting the substantial cultural divide between much of UK society and media professionals.
The event took place on 25 April at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. More detailed information about the study and the impact of technology on journalism is available on the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism website.
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