Silencing the Truth: The Global Crisis of Press Freedom and Journalist Safety

By Xuanjie “Coco” Huang, Communications Intern.

In a world where information is power, the erosion of press freedom strikes at the core of democracy itself. In 2024, the fight for truth has never been more crucial, and the stakes have never been higher. “The decline of media freedom and the rise in threats to the safety of journalists is a worldwide trend, most sharply evident in backsliding democracies and recalcitrant totalitarian States,” said Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion. 

According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which assesses the journalism climate in 180 countries and territories, the situation is “very serious” in 11% of the countries, “difficult” in 21%, “problematic” in 38%, and “good” or “satisfactory” in 29%; in other words, more than half of these countries are unsafe for journalists. 

In the U.S., 57% of journalists surveyed said they are “extremely or very concerned about potential restrictions on press freedoms in the country.” Also notably, more than 95 journalists and media workers have been killed over four months of the Israel-Gaza war — the deadliest time for journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began gathering this data in 1992. 

Why is this happening? A major reason is that impunity for crimes against journalists remains the norm. Ironically, between 2013 — the year the U.N. declared the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists — and 2023, more than 260 journalists were killed. No one has been held accountable in about 80% of those cases. With a majority of murders unresolved, would-be perpetrators may become emboldened and put journalists in greater danger. Such impunity also instills fear among other journalists with more self-censorship and reluctance to carry out their duties, leading to a decline in public-interest reporting. Thus, there needs to be a better way to hold entities accountable for harming journalists, requiring concerted efforts from various stakeholders including civil societies, governments, and international organizations. 

The role of civil society

Civil societies can play a crucial role in supporting press freedom by raising awareness, pressuring governments, and monitoring and reporting cases of journalist killings. An example is Forbidden Stories, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative journalism on the murders and incarceration of journalists worldwide. The organization was established in 2017 by award-winning journalist Laurent Richard who was deeply traumatized after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, during which Islamist terrorists killed several journalists. Thus, Forbidden Stories was born with the motto, “Killing the journalist won’t kill the story,” with a mission to continue the work of silenced journalists.

Besides cooperating with global partners to conduct and publish investigations, Forbidden Stories also operates based on an information security model, which allows journalists to drop sensitive information (eg. contacts, sources, story materials) into a secure communication channel. Through their “SafeBox Network,” journalists who feel at risk can securely send documents, knowing their stories will be protected beyond borders, governments, and censorship. The organization guarantees the survival of these stories, even if something happens to the journalists themselves. Supporting organizations like Forbidden Stories is essential not only for preserving stories but also for maintaining accountability and monitoring abuses against journalists. Their unique role as independent operators outside governments allows them to serve as watchdogs – groups who monitor activities, practices, or institutions to ensure compliance with rules, laws, or ethical standards. By investigating and advocating for cases, they pressure governments and safeguard the principles of transparency and democracy.

The role of government 

Governments bear the responsibility of ensuring accountability for journalist killings by establishing and enforcing laws that protect journalists and prosecute perpetrators. A UN Human Rights Council report highlights the dangerous trend of certain laws acting against press freedom, stating that “laws – from sedition to censorship – have long been used to punish journalists.” The arsenal of legal weapons includes sedition, cybersecurity, anti-terrorism, fake news laws, and more. Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa‘s case in the Philippines exemplifies this trend. Her news organization, Rappler, covers President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial policies and actions, which led to Philippine authorities arresting Ressa for “publishing fake news stories.” Ressa’s conviction was seen by many in the international community as a politically motivated act by Duterte’s government. She faced numerous legal actions from “tax violations,” “ownership and securities fraud,” and a range of libel suits, resulting in a potential cumulative sentence of nearly 100 years. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression suggests that states should stop the weaponization of courts against journalists. This can be achieved by enacting laws and policies that enable the early dismissal of such cases, diminishing the damages claimed in defamation lawsuits against journalists. States should also provide legal support to victims of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), which are lawsuits intended to silence critics by burdening them with legal stress, while not having any true legal claims against the critic. States should sanction the use of SLAPP to prevent institutions from using it as a tactic to suppress critics and free speech, while simultaneously prosecuting perpetrators for abuses against journalists.

The role of international organizations

With certain states unwilling to adopt measures to protect journalists and sometimes prosecuting journalists themselves, international organizations should hold entities accountable by monitoring compliance with international human rights standards, assist countries lacking infrastructure, impose diplomatic and economic targeted sanctions, and raise awareness globally to mobilize support for press freedom and accountability. Organizations like the United Nations, UNESCO, and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) can exert diplomatic pressure on governments to fulfill their obligations. 

These organizations also provide support and resources for journalists at risk. One such initiative is the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Under this plan, the UN organizes training workshops and capacity-building programs to educate journalists on safety protocols, risk assessment, digital security, legal assistance, and conflict reporting. UNESCO leads the annual celebration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd, which serves as an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of press freedom and to commemorate journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. 

Overall, the international community has a crucial responsibility to protect journalists. While civil societies can act as watchdogs and pressure governments to enact and enforce protective laws, international organizations can monitor compliance and provide support. Governments must also do more to fight corruption and enforce fair laws that prioritize freedom of speech. Coordinated efforts among these entities are essential for ensuring the safety of journalists and preserving human rights globally. More communities should join in this call to action, for the integrity of our democracies, the safety of our journalists, and the preservation of human rights. The time to defend our freedoms is now.


Published on April 4, 2024


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