Media Defence has launched its 2021 annual report, marking the end of a pivotal year for freedom of expression.
The year 2021 presented us with unprecedented challenges. In response to their work, journalists faced abusive lawsuits, smear campaigns and an increasingly unsafe environment, both online and off. Over the last couple of years, autocratic regimes around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover to stifle critical reporting. As a result, journalists have faced increasingly difficult and dangerous circumstances around the world. In 2021, we have done more to protect journalists than ever before.
As we move into 2022 – year three of our five-year strategy – there is war in Ukraine, where at least 18 journalists have been killed while reporting on the conflict. The autocratic regime in Russia has introduced a drastic series of laws that has led to the complete suppression of independent journalism, with many journalists forced to flee the country in fear for their safety. These examples serve as yet another reminder the critical importance of independent journalism.
In our annual report, we reflect on the deteriorating global climate for journalists. Moreover, we outline the work we carried out to improve this climate. Using infographics, case studies, statistics, and interviews with beneficiaries, we hope to illustrate the crucial role Media Defence plays in protecting media freedom globally.
“One worrying trend has been an increase in intimidation and threats directed at local lawyers representing journalists, as those in power seek to isolate and intimidate not only those who challenge them, but those who would defend their right to do so. This trend demonstrates just how powerful a free media can be, and why it is so feared by those who do not wish to be held to account.”
– Sarah Bull, Chair of the Board of Trustees
Last year was both a challenging and successful year for Media Defence, as we continued our 2020 – 2024 strategy period. We supported 466 cases, of which 124 were new, in 61 countries. We also supported 53 new strategic cases and distributed 15 new partner grants, improving the legal context for journalists in the long-term.
“Obtaining redress for journalists who have become victims of violence is our priority. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, we are working closely with local partners to ensure that journalists in Ukraine have access to pro bono legal support. We will increase the support we offer to local organisations in countries where the need is the highest and we will expand our training programme for lawyers from sub-Saharan Africa into Latin America and South Asia.”
– Alinda Vermeer, CEO
The global threat to journalism
Journalists increasingly find themselves without the protection of resourced media houses, and are unable to cover the costs of complex and enduring cases themselves. This precarious situation forces journalists into self-censorship, depriving citizens around the world of crucial public interest reporting.
In our work, we see a growing number of journalists becoming victims of abuse through the legal system. For instance, they may be prosecuted on the basis of meritless accusations, also known as judicial harassment or ‘lawfare’. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) also continue to pose a significant threat to journalists reporting on the wealthy and powerful. The cases we support are moving away from the traditional use defamation and libel laws. Instead, claimants are abusing data protection and privacy legislation to silence critical voices.
A further challenge to independent journalist comes from state efforts to control online information. The internet often serves as the only platform for free speech in countries with repressive media environments. As a result of the global pandemic, many countries passed new laws against “online misinformation” or “fake news”. In reality, this strict new legislation exists with the aim of clamping down on dissent. Governments are also abusing cybercrime legislation to limit freedom of expression.
About Media Defence
We are committed to defending journalists under threat for their reporting, and improving the context in which they work. Moreover, we are unique in what we do. To date, we are the only organisation in the world focusing solely on providing legal defence to independent media. Heading into the third year of our strategy period, we will continue investing in our role as a capacity-builder. This means funding more partners globally, training lawyers, and developing our resources.
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