A few weeks earlier, the dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, whose messaging-app channel was widely used in last year’s protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, was jailed after the commercial flight he was on, from Greece to Lithuania, was essentially hijacked to arrest him. He remains under house arrest.
And the number of journalists jailed because of their work hit a new high last year as authoritarian governments suppressed coverage of the pandemic or political protests.
At least 274 journalists were in prison during 2020, the most since the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists began keeping track in the early 1990s. More than 20 journalists were killed last year for doing their jobs.
“It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “The fight ahead is a very long fight.
He predicts “a Cold War-length struggle over decades for the protections of essential freedoms.”
This week, the global organization Reporters Without Borders put out a new list, its first since 2016, of “press freedom predators” — 37 heads of state or governments who crack down on press freedom in various ways, from censorship to jailing journalists to inciting violence against them.
For the first time, the list includes a European leader, Viktor Orbán of Hungary. It’s also the first time that female heads of state have joined the list — Carrie Lam of Hong Kong and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.
Also new to this grim roster is Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, “whose repressive methods include spying and threats that have sometimes led to abduction, torture and other unthinkable acts,” according to the press freedom organization. The murder in 2018 of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi is a ghastly part of that record.
The CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the assassination, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing. A team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on government aircraft and killed Khashoggi, a longtime resident of the United States, inside the Saudi Consulate, where he had gone to pick up documents that he needed for his planned marriage.
But both the Trump and Biden administrations have failed to take serious action, beyond some fairly mild sanctions. This week, top Biden administration officials hosted the crown prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister, at the Pentagon.
The lack of meaningful punishment for Khashoggi’s barbaric death is an underlying cause of what’s happening now.
“Repressive leaders feel empowered,” Simon told me.
There’s a direct line, he said, between Khashoggi’s murder and Belarus’s brazen arrest and detention of Protasevich: “What you’re seeing is state power deployed against journalists without consequence.”
Simon will step down this winter after 15 years as executive director and nearly a quarter century at CPJ, where he’s been a leading force for press freedom globally. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1981, has doubled its staff to about 50, and, with a capital campaign still underway, has fortified itself for the long fight ahead.
He said it was especially disturbing to see what he called backsliding in countries including Myanmar and Ethiopia, where press freedom was stronger not long ago. In some cases, the crackdowns came as a result of pro-democracy movements, such as the Arab Spring, as authoritarian leaders redoubled their efforts to hold power and squelch dissent.
In more recent years, Trump’s attacks on the American press and his cries of “fake news” have empowered authoritarian regimes to enact legislation — purportedly to punish the purveyors of “false news,” but really to punish legitimate journalism they find threatening.
I asked Simon how ordinary citizens can help the global cause.
“The most important thing they can do is to care,” he said — to closely follow what’s happening, and to realize that in today’s digitally connected world, “we live in a unified information environment.” As the pandemic has made clear, the fettering of news in one country — China as a prime example — can affect the whole world.
And, while it doesn’t seem to offer a direct link, Simon said another helpful action Americans can take is to support their local news sources, and to make thoughtful choices about their media consumption.
By doing so, they can take advantage and encourage the continued viability “of something that’s so precious.” Precious, but threatened.
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