Dubai: The United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, once said “... where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
In an age of angry populism, freedom of the press seldom feels like a priority in many countries battling growing inequality, which has hardened hearts and closed minds. And as the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day on May 3, even nations known to be staunch defenders of the media seem to have taken a back seat and a dim view as far as journalists are concerned.
For authoritarian regimes, business is good. What business, you ask? Well, that of harassing, killing and muzzling them. Eliminating or silencing the unofficial fourth watchdog of the state allows politicians to reshape reality according to their own terms and in their quest to cling to power. Even their acolytes in some of these countries feel it’s open season on journalists.
In this game, the stakes are high and there is blood to be shed... that of the journalist who chooses to hold fast to the ancient code of unbiased reportage without fear or favour. For such a journalist, the night of long knives will surely come.
I know from personal experience what it feels like. Unlike some colleagues in the same profession who, unfortunately, lost their lives for daring to shine a light in the darkness, I am still alive. I still recall that evening in June 2008 when they came for me. I had been investigating a story on high-level government corruption, involving a minister very close to former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. After numerous attempts to bribe me failed, abducting me seemed the only way out for them.
Why they didn’t kill me, I may never know. Maybe it’s the offer they made which I could not refuse — to be their mole, tasked with spying on a fellow journalist I looked up to. Days later, I mustered enough courage to tell my editor about what had happened. When I felt that not enough was being done to ensure my safety, I fled Zimbabwe.
But despite that dreadful night being 10 years ago, and twice a change of the guard at a government level (first a coalition, then a new president), press freedom has not improved in Zimbabwe and in many other places across the world. In these places, the light is swallowed up in darkness and the people are left all the poorer for it.
Gulf News spoke to other journalists in a few countries where the media is regularly stifled and journalists targeted — Pakistan, Indonesia, The Philippines, Zambia and Zimbabwe for first-person accounts. The following are excerpts of the interviews:
Joyce Panares, News Editor, Manila Standard, The Philippines
“The Philippines is down 6 spots in the World Press Freedom Index at 133rd. Last year, we were also tagged by Reporters Without Borders as Asia’s deadliest country for media with four journalists killed.
Sadly, this year, two days before tomorrow’s World Press Freedom Day, a radio broadcaster from the province was gunned down. Edmund Sestoso was a former chapter head of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Here is part of the NUJP statement on the murder of Sestoso: “This underscores how deeply the culture of impunity has rooted itself in our country, emboldening those who wish to silence not only the press but to control civic discourse in general by stamping out critical and dissenting voices.” The Philippine Congress has likewise yet to pass a Freedom of Information Law which would have guaranteed public access to national government data.
Wahyu Dhyatmika, Editor-in-Chief of Tempo.co, Tempo Media Group, Indonesia
The media organisation I work for is the Tempo Media Group. We publish weekly magazines, daily newspapers and several websites. We consider ourselves to be an independent, investigative and liberal media house that believe that freedom of expression and speech are needed in a growing democracy like Indonesia. Last March, hundreds of people who belong to a vigilante group who call themselves the Islamist Defender Front staged a demonstration in front of our office. They protested against a cartoon that we published in the magazine, depicting their leader, a self proclaimed uztads (religious leader) named Rizieq Syihab. In the cartoon, we criticised his decision not to return home to face trial, instead choosing to stay in his hide out in Saudi Arabia. He is wanted by the Indonesia police in connection with a pornography case. The demonstration went out of hand, with the crowd demanding that Tempo’s editor-in-chief Mr. Arif Zulkifli publicly apologise for the cartoon. They pushed him around, someone grabbed his glasses and threw it away and others hurled glasses of water at him. The police did nothing to stop it. I’m afraid this kind of harassment will become more and more common now as Islamist hardliners become more assertive and gain ground politically. Moreover, in Indonesia there are at least 8 cases of journalists murdered while doing their jobs and all haven’t been solved. The threat now no longer comes from just state apparatus like the police or army but also from vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defender Front.
Vusumuzi Sifile Sibanda, Communication for Development specialist, Zambia
The state of the media sector in Zambia is worrying. Zambia had established itself as a model of press freedom in Africa with a fast growing private and community media sector, but developments over the last two years seem to seriously dent this good record. The state of journalism is currently not at its best, with media actors seemingly focusing more on their survival than the need to serve the public interest. Inasmuch as it is not a good situation, this is understandable considering the challenges that Zambia’s private and community media sector has gone through over the last two years. One of the country’s leading daily newspapers, the Post was forced to stop operating in 2016, while a number of privately owned media actors such as Muvi TV, Komboni Radio, Prime TV were also subjected to threats that were widely viewed as attempts to cow them down. There is an urgent need for the country to enact an Access to Information law, which has been pending for years.
Iqbal Khattak, Executive Director of Freedom Network, Pakistan
Pakistan is ranked 139th on the latest press freedom report and media practitioners in the country are routinely attacked from all sides. Last year, the country saw 157 cases in which media rights were violated. They include murders, abductions, arrests, assaults, attacks on journalists, their homes, offices or families, as well as written or verbal threats, censorship, legal cases and fines.
Of the 157 violations committed from May 1, 2017 to April 1, 2018, state actors were involved in 39 per cent of these cases. Since 2002, 117 journalists have been murdered but only three of these cases were settled in a court of law. Still, these cases decided on by judges are not complete as those found guilty are appealing the verdicts. Pakistan does not have any special law to protect journalists, to protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Again, concerning bloggers, Pakistan is threatening to crack down on internet freedom.
Patience Zirima, Director of Media Monitors, Zimbabwe
The environment in which the media operates in Zimbabwe is not conducive for the development of a free, independent, credible and professional media under the new administration as in the Mugabe era. The laws which have been used in the past to close down newspapers and arrest journalists in the last 15 years remain in place today, maintaining an axe that could easily be used against the media. State ownership and control of the media remains a cause for concern, particularly as the space occupied by the State has been closed to independent players, especially in the broadcast sector. The government has 100 per cent ownership of 5 radio stations and the sole television station, 51% shareholding in 3 radio stations and are publishers of the nation’s widest circulating newspapers. The rest of the 8 licensed radio stations have direct or alleged links members of the ruling ZANU PF party, the military or controlled by a person in government. While there have been no recorded cases in which state authorities have harassed or threatened the media since November 2018, there have been cases were political parties harass journalists who try to cover their activities.