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Journalism Is Not a Crime

  • November 15, 2021
  • Clayton Rice, Q.C.

An extrajudicial execution is the killing of a person by a government authority without due process of law. Extrajudicial killings often target journalists, dissidents and political figures. Journalists today are frequently the object of assassination, mass arrests and personal harassment. In the past journalists were not overly concerned for their personal safety outside conflict zones. But according to the United Nations journalism has become one of the most dangerous professions. And journalists are soft targets.

1. Introduction

On May 3, 2016, Amnesty International published a report titled Freedom of Expression is a Human Right Not a Crime to mark World Press Freedom Day. The report turned a spotlight on the cases of nine journalists who had been detained, tortured, threatened or killed for doing their jobs. The title of the report appeared under the banner “Journalism Is Not a Crime”. (here) Later that year Amnesty followed up with another report specifically titled Journalism Is Not a Crime that focused on the media crackdown in Turkey. (here) Since July 2016 approximately 2,500 journalists and other media workers lost their jobs after 156 media outlets were shut down by executive decree. In addition, more than 120 journalists and other media workers had been detained. The Committee to Protect Journalists described Turkey as “the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.”

On July 15, 2020, the online British newspaper, The Independent, published an editorial titled Journalism is not a crime – protecting a free press is vital for us all that described the growing hostility to the media as a double barrelled threat to everyone. Violations of press freedom are commonplace, not only under totalitarian regimes, but also in democratic societies. (here) One threat is rooted in the rise of authoritarian nationalist politicians who pound the message of “fake news” and portray the press as an enemy of the people. The other threat is financial. “It is increasingly difficult to make money from telling the truth”, the editorial concluded. The phrase journalism is not a crime gets around.

On June 25, 2021, the Hong Kong Free Press ran a story titled ‘Journalism is not a crime’: Biden calls Apple Daily closure ‘sad day’ for media in Hong Kong and the world previously published by Agence France-Presse. (here) The pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was shuttered having succumbed to crippling financial pressure exerted by Beijing. On April 16, 2021, media mogul Jimmy Lai, the founder of the popular tabloid and a recipient of the Freedom of Press Award by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), had been convicted of organizing illegal protests under the draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. (here) He was sentenced to fourteen months imprisonment.

2. The Problem of Impunity

On December 18, 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/163 proclaiming 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. (here) The resolution was adopted following extensive lobbying by IFEX, a worldwide network of non-governmental organizations that advocates for freedom of expression and access to information. (here) The date was selected to mark the deaths of two French journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, who were killed while reporting in Mali earlier that year. It is also an annual reminder of the increasing number of journalists who are killed in judicially unresolved cases and pays tribute to the critical role they play in fostering public awareness. The day came and went this year without much fanfare but with sobering statements from the United Nations and UNESCO.

According to the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity report by UNESCO in 2020, only 13 percent of cases globally involving crimes against journalists were reported “as resolved” compared to 12 percent in 2019 and 11 percent in 2018. The report also stated that during the years 2018-19, a total of 156 killings of journalists were recorded worldwide. Over the preceding decade, a journalist was killed on average every four days. (here) In 2020, UNESCO identified 62 journalists who were killed. Between 2006 and 2020, over 1,200 professionals lost their lives. The killers have gone unpunished in nine out of ten cases. (here) At a recent United Nations event to debate the issue of hate speech and the safety of women journalists, Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly, asked Member States to acknowledge that women journalists are disproportionately impacted by threats that target their gender.

While extrajudicial killings are the most extreme form of retaliation, journalists are also subjected to kidnapping, torture and digital harassment. Women journalists are particularly impacted by online hostility. According to a UNESCO discussion paper titled The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists, 73 percent of women journalists surveyed reported being threatened, intimidated and insulted online. (here) The paper presents an edited extract from a study carried out by the International Center for Journalists and “reveals how these attacks are now inextricably bound up with disinformation, intersectional discrimination, and populist politics.” (here) In conjunction with this year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterras called on the international community to stand in solidarity with journalists around the world. (here)

3. The Abduction of Roman Protasevich

On May 23, 2021, Roman Protasevich was traveling by a commercial airline from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when his aircraft was intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter jet on orders by Belarusian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko. The flight on Irish airline Ryanair was diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where Mr. Protasevich was taken into custody. (here) He was a co-founder of NEXTA channel on the messaging app, Telegram, which had become a popular vehicle for Mr. Lukashenko’s protagonists to share anti-government information. The fighter jet was given an “unequivocal order” by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport after a phony bomb threat. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, called it a “brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist.”

Belarusian authorities released a video the next day in which Mr. Protasevich denied being harmed. On June 3, 2021, the state television network aired an interview where he confessed to organizing mass unrest in the country. On July 7, 2021, Reuters reported that he appeared to resurface on Twitter to deny suggestions that he had been tortured by the authorities. (here) The interview has been widely condemned as a “hostage video” with independent experts drawing attention to an apparent state of mental breakdown and marks of physical violence on his face and hands. Human rights activists and members of the Protasevich family have asserted that the video bore the hallmarks of duress. Opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after the fraudulent election in 2020, said there is a “high probability” the dissident journalist was being tortured. (here and here)

4. The Conviction of Danny Fenster

On October 28, 2021, the Global Impunity Index was released by the Committee to Protect Journalists. (here) In an article titled Killing the messenger: how the murder of journalists goes unpunished worldwide published in the Hong Kong Free Press edition of November 5, 2021, Robert Gerhardt summarized the key finding that no one was held accountable in 81 percent of the killings of journalists in the past decade. The percentage is marginally better than the previous report which found that 83 percent went unpunished. (here) Mr. Gerhardt went on to discuss the widespread arrests made during the recent military junta in Myanmar that includes 31 journalists who remain behind bars. Among them was American journalist Danny Fenster, managing editor of the award-winning news outlet Frontier Myanmar, who was arrested on May 24, 2021, at Yangon International Airport as he was about to board a flight out of the country. The charges were reported as spreading “fake news” and assisting groups that were declared illegal.

On November 12, 2021, Mr. Fenster was convicted by a Myanmar court following a secret trial held in Insein Prison which is notorious for harsh treatment of political prisoners. He was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment on three charges including “unlawful associations” and “immigration violations”. (here) Southeast Asia correspondent Richard C. Paddock, reporting for The New York Times, said the charges stemmed from news coverage in Myanmar Now where Mr. Fenster had not worked for over a year. (here) According to his lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, Mr. Fenster said he would not appeal because “the orders came from above and it would not matter whether he appealed”. Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the sentence “a travesty of justice by a kangaroo court operating at the beck-and-call of the Myanmar military junta”.

5. Decline of Press Freedom in Hong Kong

In an article titled Almost half of journalists considering leaving Hong Kong, citing decline in press freedom – survey published by the Hong Kong Free Press on November 5, 2021, Rhoda Kwan reported an anonymous survey conducted by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) that found 46 percent of respondents were “considering or had plans” to leave the city due to the decline in press freedom since Beijing imposed the national security law on the semi-autonomous region last year. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said working conditions have deteriorated and 86 percent said sources were not willing to speak or be quoted on sensitive issues. (here) The Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry lashed out in response warning the FCC to stop making “noise” and accusing the organization of being “black hands” that intervene in the city’s affairs. (here)

On November 13, 2021, The Economist announced that Hong Kong authorities have refused a work visa for correspondent Sue-Lin Wing. She is the latest journalist to be denied a visa after HKFP’s incoming editor, Aaron McNichols, was denied last year. Chris Buckley of The New York Times was forced to depart weeks earlier and Victor Mallet of the Financial Times left in similar circumstances in 2018. None were given an explanation. (here) The national security law has been used by Beijing to crush the pro-democracy movement associated with the Hong Kong Protests during 2019-20. Hong Kong authorities have arrested 117 people under the repressive legal regime, charging more than 60, including journalists, democratic politicians, activists and students. (here)

6. Conclusion

The deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi are two of the more infamous extrajudicial killings in the last decade. On February 22, 2012, Ms. Colvin, a foreign affairs correspondent for The Sunday Times, was killed together with photojournalist Remi Ochlik when their media centre was hit by artillery fire launched by al-Assad forces during the siege of Homs, Syria. On October 2, 2018, Mr. Khashoggi, a dissident journalist and columnist for The Washington Post, was killed by agents of the Saudi government at its consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The death of Ms. Colvin is vividly portrayed in the biopic A Private War (2018) and the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is the subject of the chilling documentary The Dissident (2020). The extrajudicial executions of Ms. Colvin and Mr. Khashoggi are obviously distinct from the abduction of Mr. Protasevich and the secret trial of Mr. Fenster. When I was on the verge of publishing this post, I was headed for the concluding sentence: “They were not assassinated.” Then the story broke this morning that Mr. Fenster was released from prison just three days after being sentenced. (here) Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations William Richardson had negotiated Mr. Fenster’s release during meetings with the junta’s chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The relief that came with the news of Mr. Fenster’s freedom feels so oddly strange.

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