Shooting the Messenger

By ESTHER CHAVANNES

Picture credits: Emad Hajjaj

May 3rd was a good day, for several reasons. Most importantly, it was apparently the birthday of quite a number of Facebook friends. Also, the sky was grey, yet it wasn’t raining. Not to mention the victory for Dutch football fans when Ajax embarrassed Lyon in Amsterdam. And I’m pretty sure there was something else…

        Oh right. World Press Freedom Day.

Funny story: as I was trying to do some proper research while still in the hopeful stage of writing this article, I tried to access the official website of this event, only to be notified of the fact that my browser “Can’t Open the Page.” Now, I realised of course that it probably wasn’t someone doing a slav squat on the server. However, I can’t honestly say this slow start proved any less depressing than the rest of my research. Here are some examples of situations or new developments in free journalism you might want to consider being concerned about, in no particular order.

“Discrediting news media to create public distrust is a tactic that is spreading at alarming rates.”

On Tuesday, for reasons unknown to everyone else, Israel refused to extend the visa of NRC Handelsblad correspondent Derk Walters. This means he will have to leave the country by 1 July. Setting aside any dislike you may have of Israel’s actions in general, it generally hasn’t been hard for journalists to receive working permits and press passes.

In reaction to the Foreign Press Association’s comments that this may indicate a new and dangerous direction Israel could be headed, a spokesman of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said something rather fun. He stated that the Israeli population has room to criticise the government, and it’s therefore unnecessary for them to be informed by a third party. Good omen.

Moving on to the worldwide prison census. The Committee to Protect Journlists (CPJ) provides yearly reports on the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide. As a global community we have managed to push this number from 199 in December 2015 to 259 last December.

Of course I wouldn’t want to point any fingers. I specifically won’t be pointing fingers at Turkey, because it’s not my country, I’m Western, and should get off my colonial high horse instead of trying to be the world’s overconcerned parent. Fair enough. But 81 journalists incarcerated, really? Second in line was China, with ‘only’ 38 locked up.

In both cases of course, it tends to be difficult to exactly establish this amount. However, any people locked up at all over blogging or honest reporting is already worrying, no matter what country we’re talking about.

I was almost afraid to look at this year’s Press Freedom Index (as compiled for 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders). For a start, North Korea finally realised one of its new years resolutions and has taken over Eritrea in last place.

Apart from this, white teens’ preferred country to get indecently inebriated has dropped even further down: Thailand has been bumped to place 143. This is mostly due to the ever-increasing crackdown by the military junta (ironically called the National Council for Peace and Orwell – no wait, Order) heading the country. But who would notice that in a country with free 30-day visas and cheap elephant pants, right?

But let’s not get too gloating, safe in our democratic palaces made with building blocks of free market favouritism, the steel beam support that is the separation of powers, and the internal framework of a colonial past – all held together with the cement of free speech.

Let’s turn to Finland for a quick look at why they no longer top the list. Yle is the country’s government-owned national broadcasting service. Yle initially reported on a conflict of interest concerning large government order from a company in which Prime Minister Sipila’s family has stakes. Soon after the initial report, Yle apparently “changed its practices,” leading to the resignation of several reporters.

The UK has also managed to slip a few spots in the ranking and is down to number 40. This is explained by the adoption of “the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, the Investigatory Powers Act,” or, as The Guardian put it, “a bill giving the UK intelligence agencies and police the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world.” Look it up – it’s not pretty.

Then again, this is an unfortunate yet widespread ‘democratic’ trend. Just in October 2016, Germany’s Bundestag passed a law that extends mass surveillance powers of the Federal Intelligence Agency (BND), with no exceptions for journalists. The BND can now legally spy on all non-German and non-EU nationals, including journalists and lawyers. The idea is of course some lovely extra protection from terrorists, but it severely limits confidentiality and the ability to do investigative journalism.

I’ve left our favourite democratic government for last. The Western country whose export of deep-fried liberty is second-to-none, whose expertise in corporate tax exemption is only second-to-Holland, but whose press freedom is apparently 43rd.

To be honest, Obama’s legacy in this was quite bad. His government prosecuted more whistleblowers than any previous administration combined. Additionally, to this day journalists’ protection of sources’ confidentiality isn’t legally protected, press members are often subjected to prolonged searches at the country’s airports, and foreign journalists have been prevented from travelling to the US after covering sensitive topics abroad.

But Old McDonald has been on a huge roll. Did we all watch Hasan Minaj perform at the Correspondents’ Dinner? And did we all see the Administration there, laughing along in freedom-spirited good humour? No? Weird. You must’ve been watching on CNN then, everyone knows they’re haters and losers. Honestly, it sometimes seems Trump’s government is so divorced from the truth, they should be paying it alimony.

On a more serious note, independent press is not in for a treat any time soon. White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason said that “freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy”, and that “undermining that by seeking to delegitimise journalists is dangerous to a healthy republic.”

In the meantime, while the Correspondents’ Dinner was celebrating the First Amendment of the US, the country’s president was at a rally in Pennsylvania where he gave independent news media “a very, very big fat failing grade.” Charming.

Discrediting news media to create public distrust is a tactic that is spreading at alarming rates. Where accusing journalists of lying or hating the nation used to be something China correspondents reported on, it’s rapidly becoming a preferred tool of those politicians who have the nerve to call themselves ‘anti-system’. European populist leaders like Nigel Farage tend to claim they’re only targeted by liberal media who are part of the lying liberal establishment. But naming news media “enemy of the people” and journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” while warning that they “will be held accountable” is a form of indirectly limiting the media that eventually makes it all too easy to claim any uncovering of government wrongdoings to be falsehoods.

I just want to remind you all of how crucial journalistic liberty is for democracy and the checking of powers. No matter how funny it can be to ironically quote Trump, Farage, or Le Pen, we must be aware of the normalisation of blatant lies and the indirect threatening of journalists. so let’s grab ‘m by the press freedom before it’s too late.

 

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