Journalist asks a question to President Kagame at a press conference in Kigali, 16 December 2016

Credit: Paul Kagame via Flickr sourced under Creative Commons licence

Every year, WAN-IFRA surveys its members and other senior media executives. Alongside checking the temperature of topics such as revenue strategies and digital transformation, we also probe respondents about questions related to media freedom and freedom of expression.

We posed these questions at a pivotal moment for our profession, as we observe the diminishing media freedom worldwide and the growing challenges that journalists encounter in carrying out their work.

These trends have been observable for an extended period; as evidenced in WAN-IFRA's annual study, as well as work produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Freedom House, and many others.

"Journalists have long been under siege," notes Antonio Zappulla, the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) in a 2023 report on media freedom by TRF and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

"The mission to inform and empower can be as dangerous as it is critical. In an era defined by converging global crises, journalists who hold power to account are increasingly making enemies of the powerful."

1. Growing numbers of journalists are being killed or imprisoned

CPJ reported – in its most recent annual census – that 363 journalists were known to be imprisoned as of December 1, 2022. Meanwhile, it recorded that 99 media workers and journalists were killed last year.

More widely, the annual World Press Freedom study, which assesses the journalistic environment in 180 countries and territories determined that the state of media freedom is "very serious" in 31 countries, "difficult" in 42, "problematic" in 55, and "good" or "satisfactory" in 52 countries.

Put another way, the environment for journalism is considered "poor" in seven out of ten countries and only "satisfactory" in three out of ten.

WAN-IFRA's data underscores the widespread and diverse nature of these press freedom challenges. While many of these issues seem to be more prominent in developing countries, they are by no means confined to a specific region or group of nations.

2. Obstruction, harassment and intimidation are global issues

Across our overall sample, nearly two-thirds of respondents (61 per cent) told us that their company had been denied access to information. More than half (56 per cent) reported that they had endured online harassment. Meanwhile, nearly half said they had been the targets of cyber-attacks (47 per cent) and legal intimidations and retaliation (44 per cent).

In Botswana, the offices of Mmegi, a leading newspaper were raided by intelligence services in late July. During the operation, law enforcement agents confiscated electronic devices and arrested editor Ryder Gabathuse, as well as reporter Innocent Selatlhwa. The journalists were later released without charge, Voice of America reported.

Such incidents are not confined to the developing world. Last August, police in Marion, Kansas, executed a raid on a local newspaper, confiscating computers, cell phones, and other materials from its office and the home of its owner and publisher.

"Thankfully, newsroom raids are rare and constitutionally suspect in the US,” the Daily Beast reflected. "But the alarming reality is that while newsroom raids may be rare in America, police surveillance of journalists is not." The US Press Freedom Tracker features 99 total search and seizure incidents – similar to the one seen in Kansas - since the site began in 2017. 

3. There are some differences between the developed and developing world

That said, there are several areas where respondents to our survey from the developing world reported issues that are more prominent than in developed economies. That includes government threats (41 per cent vs. 7 per cent), physical harassment (33 per cent vs. 21 per cent) as well as legal threats (55 per cent vs. 32 per cent) and denial of access to information (54 per cent vs 29 per cent).

Nevertheless, we also saw areas where we saw little variance in the experience of our survey respondents on issues such as cyber-attacks and online harassment, highlighting the near universality of these threats.

Within this, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are increasingly prevalent on a global scale, and they present a substantial threat to freedom of expression, media freedom, and various other human rights.

As Catherine Offord, a science journalist based in Spain, reminds us, "while large outlets may have the backing and resources to face down these kinds of attacks, smaller outlets can more easily be persuaded to avoid covering controversial topics in the future," she suggests.

Other legal mechanisms – and government threats - that might be used include the blocking of visas and entry into a country, potential deportation, as well as calls by politicians for their supporters to boycott specific outlets.

4. The need for independently funded journalism

In many developing nations dependence on government monies – particularly advertising – can also impact media coverage.

Because of this, Dounard Bondo, a Liberia-based journalist, argues – sharing principles applicable in markets around the world - that "the press also has to figure out how to make money independent of government advertising."

Without this, "the professional precarity of journalists afraid to lose their jobs has also made them susceptible to self-censorship and bribery," argued George Ogola, professor of media industries at the University of Nottingham, in an article for The Conversation.

5. Collective championing is imperative

As our survey once more clearly demonstrates, journalists and media organisations face a multitude of methods aimed at curbing press freedom. These methods encompass digital attacks, physical intimidation, and threats originating from governments and the legal system.

The perpetrators of these actions have an array of tools at their disposal, and they are unapologetic in their use. In fact, evidence suggests that they have become emboldened to use them with increasing alacrity.

It is the collective responsibility of all of us to address these issues by exposing abuses and emphasizing the significance of journalists being able to carry out their work without harassment, threats, or fear.

This is an adapted extract from the World Press Trends 2023-2024 report. The study is based primarily on an online survey conducted between July and September 2023 among WAN-IFRA members and One-third (66 per cent) of respondents were C-Suite (CEOs, publishers, managing directors), and another third were either commercial directors, heads of strategy or executive editors. We received 175 complete responses from 60 countries around the world. Using World Bank classifications, 58 per cent of respondents were from developed economies and 42 per cent from developing economies.

Damian Radcliffe is the lead author of the report. He is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon, and a three-time Knight News Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

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