Journalists protest in Mexico

Journalists protesting against violence in Mexico

Credit: Knight Foundation on Flickr. Some rights reserved
We have been speaking to Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, about the issues relating to press freedom we should be aware of as we mark World Press Freedom Day.

Q. What are the major changes since World Press Freedom Day last year?

A. One year on from last year and what we have seen is an increase in online censorship, particularly in those countries where we have seen Arab uprisings and particularly Syria and in Iran.

We've seen a terrible toll in terms of deaths of journalists covering those conflicts, again particularly in Syria with the deaths in Homs and in Idlib.

We are also seeing an increase in the censorship of the platforms that journalists are now using to publish their work, namely online.

Q. Is it correct to look at the Middle East in terms of breakthroughs and pushbacks in press freedom?

A. There is more diversity of opinion in Egypt now then there was under [ousted president] Hosni Mubarak.

I was in Egypt a few weeks ago and what we are finding there is that independent journalists are under pressure from two sides: they are under pressure from the military establishment and those people who were associated with the former Mubarak regime, but also they feel under pressure from the growing power of the various Islamist groups in the country.

Egypt's journalists are having to steer a very cautious course between those two opposing tendencies, but overall, yes, they do have more freedom to publish and to report.

Where it has got worse is in Syria. The government has cracked down on all forms of reporting and we are reduced to uploaded videos and snatches of reports from so-called citizen journalists who take their lives into their hands when they go out during government attacks to report on what is happening.

We have seen journalists such as Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and Remi Ochlik from France, who were killed in February in Homs who were some of the last foreign reporters to be able to work out of Syria.

The government has closed the borders as far as foreign journalists are concerned. Some do smuggle themselves across the border from Turkey but they take tremendous risks in order to be able to do that.

The picture in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings is very mixed.

Q. And in Africa?

A. We shouldn't take any freedoms for granted, they are under threat.

The most vibrant and probably the most free press corps in Africa is still in South Africa, but the ANC, which has been the subject of investigative journalism for quite some time with journalists looking into its finances , is proposing legislation that would curb media freedoms and that has mobilised large sections of the press in South Africa to push back.

Eritrea has absolutely no independent media at all, it has no independent journalists, the government controls all broadcasting and gives instructions to journalists about what they will write and how they will write itRobert Mahoney
The proposed legislation is still in the pipeline and you could have the Protection of Information Bill, as it is called, effectively giving government control over what information you can classify as secret and what information it will allow to be published, and you also have a proposal in South Africa for a media tribunal which would be even more chilling on press freedom.

That's one of the problems facing one of the freest media environments and then you look at some of the other countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, where the government has effectively silenced the independent press. Ethiopia practises very sophisticated internet filtering and censorship and it an extremely oppressive country for the press press.

Eritrea next door tops the list of the top 10 most censored countries in the world. It has absolutely no independent media at all, it has no independent journalists, the government controls all broadcasting and gives instructions to journalists about what they will write and how they will write it. It does not allow any foreign journalists into the country and there are no foreign news organisations based in the country. It is a complete information black hole as far as its citizens are concerned.

There are problems in other parts of Africa which are to do with repressive or authoritarian regimes that want to cling to power and see an independent and free press as a threat to that as it would shine a light onto some of the corruption.

If you cross the continent to West Africa you look at Equatorial Guinea which is awash in oil and lots of money, but that money does not get down to everybody in the country and there's no press there to write about that.

Equatorial Guinea is an incredibly censored country, it too has virtually no independent press. When the Arab uprisings were taking place a directive went out in equatorial guinea that the media were not to report on the Arab Spring. Obviously the ruling family was fearful that it might give ideas to the population.

Q. Moving away from Africa and to South East Asia, has Burma become freer in recent months?

A. Burma has the potential for opening up in the media space but it hasn't happened yet. I think we need to be very cautious about declaring Burma a place where there is an opening as far as the media is concerned.

Burma has released some detained journalists but nevertheless it remains a very, very repressive country as far as the press is concerned
There have been openings on the political landscape. Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament and has taken the oath and has entered parliament so there is some kind of a political opposition.

Burma has released some detained journalists but nevertheless it remains a very, very repressive country as far as the press is concerned. Its press is heavily censored, there are still journalists in jail and we are waiting to see whether the military junta in Burma follows through with an easing on the media as it has done on the political opposition.

Q. And in Europe, what should we be aware of and is there anything we can do to help improve press freedom?

A. Belarus is very repressive politically, but it is also extremely oppressive as far as its press is concerned.

President Lukashenko has very broad powers and has used them to prosecute journalists, to imprison journalists, to place travel bans on reporters, [Belarus] has practised wholesale confiscation of newspapers and seizing of newspaper organisations' assets. Europe doesn't have to look very far to find a very repressive country, right on its eastern borders.

The EU could really be working to improve the press freedom climate in Belarus.

More generally, it is incumbent upon European companies, just as it is on US and international companies, to make sure that they do not become complicit in repressing freedom of expression and media by selling products and services into countries without assessing the human rights impacts of those products and services, or by selling technologies to countries which will enable them to censor communications, particularly the internet, or to spy on citizens with surveillance equipment.

Q. To what extent can circumvention technologies, such as proxy servers based in other countries, help?

A. Turkey banned YouTube and a lot of people were able to use proxies and watch videos that way.

But if you are living in a censored country you sometimes don't know what you don't know.

I'm sure that there are lots of people in China think the internet is what they get when they log on to a computer inside China and that the search results that they get are what everyone else gets. They probably don't know that that's not true, that they are behind a wall and they can't look over that wall unless they have the equipment or the knowledge to do so. The number of people who do that are quite small as a percentage of the overall population.

Circumvention technologies can be good but they can be slow. If you live in Iran or if you live in China you may well use some kind of circumvention software like Tor to access the internet but that's a fix, it's a Band Aid, what is really needed is a concerted effort by the wider community to bring pressure to bear on the governments to take down those forms of internet censoring that they have erected. That's what eventually needs to happen. While there are very useful for people in order to protect themselves and their sources, circumvention technologies are not the answer, they are part of the answer.

Q. So what are the main points we should be aware of in relation to press freedom?

A. There are two sets of issues: there are the countries where the state or the central authority, in order to maintain itself in power imposes onerous restrictions on journalists and censors its own population and they are Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Belarus, those in our list of the top 10 most censored countries. That kind of state control is something that we have been pushing back against ever since this organisation was founded more than 30 years ago. It is a perennial problem for journalists.

In the last few years with the drug wars in Mexico the drug cartels have intimidated independent journalists into silence
There is also another kind of censorship that affects journalists and that is self-censorship and that tends to flourish in situations where journalists are in mortal danger. We have seen in the last few years with the drug wars in Mexico, for example, the drug cartels have intimidated independent journalists into silence. Out of fear for their lives and out of fear for the lives of their families many journalists have stopped reporting the activities of organised crime in the drug cartels.

There is also intimidation in Somalia where militias or clans ensure that journalists are not reporting about them.

Q. Anything else we should remember as we mark World Press Freedom Day?

A. In those countries that do enjoy a certain amount of press freedom do not take it for granted because even in western countries, in North America and in Western Europe, governments are trying to control the means of publication, namely the internet.

They are doing this more and more, sometimes in the name of internet security, sometimes in the name of curbing crime such as money laundering or child pornography. You need to be aware of encroachments on the internet by western governments.

We also need to look at the increasing threats to journalists in the developing world from repressive regimes which want to maintain themselves in power, whether they are rich countries such as Saudi Arabia which is awash in oil or dirt poor countries like Eritrea or North Korea which do so by keeping their populations in wilful ignorance and closing them off to the outside world.

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