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Eroding the Cornerstone – Attacking Media Freedom Imperils All Human Rights

Eroding the Cornerstone – Attacking Media Freedom Imperils All Human Rights

World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2023: Journalists at the forefront of protecting human rights

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in international treaties and conventions and in constitutions around the world. These laws and standards, as well as those specifically addressing the rights and protections of journalists, are in place not only to protect individuals who risk reprisals for exercising their right to freedom of expression, such as journalists, activists, whistle-blowers and artists, but because of the foundational role freedom of expression plays in upholding other human rights. Without access to information and a plurality of views, citizens can’t hold power to account or engage in informed dialogue. This impacts how we tackle global problems, prevent conflict and build just, fair and democratic societies.

This fact is being recognized in this year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day, “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”. In promoting this theme, international bodies, states and civil society are also acknowledging the essential role journalists play in protecting all human rights.

Some recent cases Media Defence supported directly or through its partners illustrate how journalists are at the forefront of protecting human rights. Whether by exposing corruption, reporting on elections, relaying information during a natural disaster or covering armed conflict, their work informs voters of abuses of power, ensures citizens have access to critical information in a crisis, and brings the voices of those impacted by war and famine to the world. These cases also reveal how journalists’ ability to do so is under constant attack through a growing number of tools of censorship.

Spyware: a tool of transnational oppression that threatens citizens’ access to information

When journalists working together across borders uncovered the widespread use of aggressive spyware by governments, it was bombshell revelation. In 2021, the Pegasus Project revealed that 180 journalists, along with thousands of politicians, and activists around the world were targeted with Pegasus, a mobile phone surveillance software sold by the Israeli-based firm NSO Group. Once installed, Pegasus can extract contacts, photos, videos, geolocation, encrypted communications and much more.

Media Defence has identified spyware as atool of transnational oppression” that silences journalists and creates public mistrust. It not only violates multiple rights of the individuals targeted – freedom of expression and privacy to name two—but when used against journalists, it threatens the broader citizenry’s access to information.

Though used around the world, one country where high numbers of journalists have been targeted with spyware is Azerbaijan. According to the Organisation for Crime and Corruption Reporting (OCCRP), dozens of prominent journalists were selected for targeting with Pegasus, meaning their cell phone numbers were listed by NSO’s clients for targeting. Among the journalists whose phones were found through forensic analysis to have been infected with the spyware are award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Meydan TV reporter Sevinj Vagifgizi Abbasova, whose phone was compromised by Pegasus from 2019 to 2021. Journalists and freedom of expression groups believe the state’s security agency is responsible.

This all-out assault on journalists’ privacy is one of many attempts to muzzle the media in Azerbaijan. Ismayilova, who has reported extensively on corruption and Azerbaijan’s first family, has also been subject to severe online harassment, imprisonment for nearly 18 months and a five-year travel ban.  Abbasova was also banned from travel from 2015 to 2019 and sued for defamation for her coverage of alleged election fraud. Other journalists and activists have been arrested or banned from travel in recent years under what is described as “an  extensive crackdown on civil liberties.”

Working with lawyers in Azerbaijan, Media Defence filed four cases in 2022, including one on behalf of Abbasova, to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The filings argue that, by failing to investigate their claims, the government violated multiple rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 6,] 8, 10, 13, 17 and 18) including rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and effective remedies.

Perhaps a most damaging fallout from the use of spyware in Azerbaijan and elsewhere is its chilling impact on reporting and public discourse. Spyware threatens to expose journalists’ sources, which in turn weakens the media’s ability to gather news and report on important matters of public interest from elections to large scale corruption and money laundering.

News as a lifeline for citizens in the aftermath of the natural disasters

Another example of how undermining journalists and the free flow of information can be consequential to large populations is the February 6, 2023 earthquake that devastated southeast Turkey and the northwest region of Syria. The 7.7 magnitude quake and its aftershocks killed tens of thousands and left millions of people in urgent need of basic necessities like shelter, food, clean water, and sanitation.

News, during and in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly one of this scale, can be a lifeline for local citizens and inform a global response, but in Turkey journalists were heavily impeded from doing their jobs. According to the Turkish non-profit Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), one of Media Defence’s partner groups, in the days following the cataclysmic event, at least four journalists were detained and several others prevented from taking photos and video or had their equipment destroyed. Authorities also launched Investigations into several journalists for critical comments on rescue efforts and fined three television outlets in response to their critical broadcasts.

Several days after the earthquake, Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) restricted access to Twitter and other social media, essential platforms for victims to share information and connect with help. MLSA’s Co-Director Veysel Ok has since filed a criminal complaint against mobile network operators and the executives of the BTK for “misuse of public duty”, “prevention of communication”, “reckless killing” and “reckless injury.” In one interview, Ok said, “In a time when people were literally holding onto life via social media, this kind of recklessness and irresponsibility are unacceptable.”  Media Defence, Article 19 and other freedom of expression groups have provided input in support of the case. MLSA also filed a criminal complaint against law enforcement and Religious Affairs personnel who destroyed the equipment of two Greek journalists covering the earthquakes.

Turkey’s tightening on freedom of expression in the wake of the earthquake took place in a context where the media is either under attack or under government control. Since the coup attempt in 2016, the government has shut down independent and Kurdish media outlets and implemented legislation criminalising disinformation.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was one of the top five leading jailors of journalists in 2022, with 40 journalists behind bars. And, on April 23, just over a week before World Press Freedom Day, authorities detained at least 10 journalists along with lawyers, rights defenders, political activists and artists in a series of raids allegedly related to an anti-terror investigation.

These curtailments of freedom of expression means the ability of Turkey’s media and civil society to operate as watchdogs and promote pluralistic views is being hamstrung at a critical time. Turkey is heading into presidential and parliamentary elections. Moreover as reconstruction efforts get underway, bolstered by significant foreign aid, transparency, public scrutiny and access to information is paramount.

The role of the media in sharing timely and independent information during conflict

Conflicts are another backdrop where the media plays a crucial role as a source of timely information and by sharing different perspectives to complex situations. Journalists also shine a light on human rights abuses and humanitarian needs, which are more acute in conflict environments. Too often, however, journalists’ covering conflict face violent intimidation or risk arrest under broad anti-state laws that restrict coverage of all sides of a conflict.

In Somalia’s 20-year-old civil war, the government and insurgent groups have sought to control the public narrative, with the media in the cross hairs. Al-Shabaab frequently targets journalists with violence. At least 37 journalists in Somalia were killed during the last 15 years in attacks attributed to extremist groups. Government security forces have also allegedly perpetrated targeted attacks, arbitrary arrests and harassment of journalists. Attempts to report on Al-Shabaab are often labelled as promoting terrorism. Journalists pushing back against state restrictions on free expression, like Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, have faced dire consequences.

In October 2022, Somalia’s Information Ministry issued a directive prohibiting the “dissemination of extremism ideology messages, both from official media broadcasts and social media.” In tandem, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication instructed internet service providers to suspend more than 40 websites. Concerned the directive’s vague wording would restrict free expression and media freedom, Mumin, Secretary-General of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), read a joint statement by journalists at a press conference.

The statement criticised the directive for limiting “the ability of journalists to freely report the ongoing operations against the armed group” and restricting “access to information relating to the ongoing security operations from the general public.” It also took issue with the blanket suspension and ban on social media platforms allegedly for spreading Al-Shabaab, noting that the banning of a platform “impacts many ordinary Somalis” and “might be used to silence the legitimate critics of the government and its security forces including journalists, human rights defenders, independent researchers, analysts and others.”

The day after reading the statement, Mumin, who in addition to being a press freedom advocate reported for many years for prominent international publications on security and humanitarian issues, was arrested and charged with bringing the Somali state into contempt, instigating disobedience of government orders, and nonobservance of government orders. He was released on bail but rearrested several weeks later. While detained a second time, Mumin suffered kidney problems and other health issues.

In January 2023, Mumin was sentenced to two years in prison but was released for time already served. Media Defence supported Abdalle Ahmed Mumin’s legal defence but he continues to face judicial harassment. On February 23, 2023 he was detained again and on March 27, 2023 he was temporarily barred from travelling.

Abdalle Ahmed Mumin’s persecution violates his individual rights to freedom of expression and fair trial standards, but also, as highlighted in a joint letter by human rights groups, “has a chilling effect on journalism and civic space throughout the country.” For decades, Somalia’s conflict has impacted the daily life of its citizens, fuelling critical humanitarian situations and human rights abuses. Constricting media freedom and access to information, only exacerbates their plights.

Media freedom underpins a larger tapestry of human rights

These are a few examples of how media freedom underpins a larger tapestry of rights to which people around the world are entitled. Yet the work of journalists, a central pillar to freedom of expression, is constantly challenged. Today’s media is under attack in increasing number of ways. In addition to repressive tactics the above examples highlight – surveillance, arbitrary detention, travel bans, harassment, online censorship and abuse of security laws – other means to repress freedom of expression and control the media are on the rise, from sophisticated disinformation campaigns to SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation against Public Participation). Meanwhile violent attacks against journalists and impunity remain pervasive.

If freedom of expression is a fundamental cornerstone to healthy societies, then we must do all we can to keep it from eroding further, lest all our rights crumble with it.

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