NASHVILLE, TN – These are dark days for the 4th Estate. People don’t want to pay for news because you can Google anything for free. Reporters get blamed for the spread of false information, too, and the public considers them untrustworthy.
And then there are the usual occupational hazards–not for lying to people–but for telling the truth. Democracies cannot survive without a vigilant and independent press and powerful people operating in the shadows don’t want their secrets coming to light.
“We’re seeing a record number of journalists being imprisoned and killed around the world,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, Program Director Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Covering war and exposing government corruption is hazardous. Six reporters have already died covering the War in Ukraine; so far in 2022 seven others died in other conflict zones; globally, 66 reporters are currently missing. Two hundred ninety-three journalists were imprisoned in 2021.
Martinez described a “War on Information” to a group of ethnic media reporters last week. He said when a reporter is killed doing their job, it has a chilling effect on all the other journalists working in that country.
“Journalists investigating political corruption are the ones who are usually targets because of their work,” Martinez said. But there is a new trend. CPJ documented 47 cases last year when journalists were jailed for reporting “false news”.
He said in some countries old laws are being used to arrest reporters for reporting “fake news” and new laws specifically target reporters to control information.
For example, a new Russian law took effect March 4. It places restrictions on use of the word “war” and threatens punishment up to 15 years for any stories that go against the Russian government’s version of events. Several news organizations are no longer reporting from Moscow.
“False news has at least two components. One is the deliberate creation of propaganda that is trying to resemble real news and then the other is the attempt by all types of people, mostly politicians around the world, to undermine journalism by trying to classify it as false every time there is something they don’t like about it,” he said.
Former President Trump frequently attacked the press for his mishandling of the pandemic and after the 2020 Election because he couldn’t stand what journalists were accurately reporting.
Attacks on the press usually start on line or with social media–think about Trump’s litany of tweets about ‘Fake News’ — but they can escalate into real world danger.
Martinez said that most cases are never solved when reporters are murdered. “Killing a journalist is not usually a problem,” he said. The killers kill with little fear they will be prosecuted.
Attacks on journalists are increasing around the world. “There is a continuous cycle of killing journalists and impunity,” he said.
In Mexico, for example, 133 reporters have been murdered covering crime and corruption since 2000, according to CPJ. In January and March this year, two reporters were killed in Michoacán state. They were local news reporters who wrote about corruption, embezzlement, and influence peddling by a former mayor of Zitácuaro and the Governor of Michoacán state.
CPJ has mounted a global campaign to bring attention to the war on reporters because of the news they break.
“There is a growing community of journalists in exile. It’s becoming a feature of our world. We have journalists reporting on their countries from elsewhere because they cannot do that work within their country,” Martinez said.
“I have experienced a lot of threats as a Russian-speaking journalist here in California,” said Ruslan Gurzhiy, Editor-in-Chief, SlavicSac. an online Russian language news service in Sacramento.
Gurzhiy started SlavicSac in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimea and started arming separatists in the Donbas region in SW Ukraine. People think the war in Ukraine started a month ago but Gurzhiy said that it started eight years ago.
The Inter American Press Association tracks press restrictions in Latin America and count the number of reporters who have died doing their job.
“The problems of press freedom are systemic in Latin America. They are very much in tune with the authoritarian governments of the day,” said Ricardo Trotti, Executive Director, Interamerican Press Association. Trotti named Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, and Guatemala as countries with repressive regimes that suppress press freedom.
“In this first quarter of 2022 we have to lament that 12 journalists have been killed in the Americas—eight in Mexico, three in Haiti , one in Guatemala, and the other one in Honduras,” he said.
Trotti blamed organized crime, drug-trafficking, cooperation with the corruption of government officials, police, and paramilitaries for the widespread violence against reporters in Latin America.
“All of the murders occur in the interior of the countries where the government is less present or there is more corruption in those places,” he said.
Trotti noted that President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has put restrictions on the press, closed news outlets, jailed prominent journalists, and expelled more than 150 reporters since 2018. Another law passed in 2021 allows the state to confiscate the equipment of news operations that are deemed a threat to the revolution.
Holding authorities to account is very difficult when governments lie about the facts and there is no access to public information to contradict the official story.
“The news desert continues to advance,” Trotti said. In Columbia, for example, 60 percent of cities do not have local news outlets. Three quarters of Argentina, 14 million Brazilians, and five million Venezuelans live in cities without local journalism.
Local news in North America has suffered a precipitous decline, too. Two hundred forty news operations disappeared in Canada between 2005-2021 and more than 2000 newspapers have closed in the U.S.
“We are facing a bomb exploding in our hands without realizing it. Countries without local journalism can’t monitor government,” Trotti said.
“People are hungry for the truth. I believe people are re-evaluating the profession because of the big event—like the fake news issue, the pandemic, and the war. People are going to more trusted sources. I believe that’s a positive side of our profession at this time.”