World Press Freedom Day: Journalists Under Attack

by Alice Dahle, Sarah Hager, Ken Harrow, Jim McDonald and Ella Shen

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the principles of press freedom and defend those under attack simply for exercising their profession as journalists. This is a particularly critical time to uphold the right to freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders reports that there has been a “deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom” both worldwide and at regional levels. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 48 journalists were killed during 2016 in connection with their work, while the deaths of another 27 journalists in 2016 may have been work-related but require further investigation. The International News Safety Institute compiled a list of 115 journalists who died in the course of their work during that year. Some of those deaths took place in dangerous environments, such as war zones or in areas controlled by drug cartels or organized criminals. Others were the result of efforts to silence voices that were critical of political or religious authorities.

Attacks by governments and others against journalists occur across the world. We’ll highlight a few selected examples from Botswana, Burundi, Caucasus/Central Asia and Sri Lanka, and also discuss challenges especially faced by women journalists.

In Botswana, over the past year, journalists have been arrested, threatened and physically abused. Journalist Sonny Serite was arrested in March 2016 after a whistleblower gave him documents that related to a corruption case. Last August, the courts determined that Outsa Mokone, a newspaper editor arrested in 2014 for an article alleging the involvement of the president in a road accident, could be charged with sedition. The author of that article, Edgar Tsimane, has been in South Africa the last three years where he fled stating he feared his life and received asylum. Most recently, three journalists allege they were detained and threatened with death in March of this year for trespassing when they attempted to investigate possible corruption related to renovations of a home of the president. As a nation that frequently calls out the abuses of other countries on the continent, it is important Botswana tend to its own house before throwing stones at others.

The government in Burundi has cracked down over the past year on journalists, opposition politicians and others perceived to be critical of the ruling party. Earlier, four independent private radio stations were destroyed by police during a coup attempt in May 2015. In August 2015, Esdras Ndikumama, a correspondent for AFP and Radio France Internationale, was arrested and reportedly beaten for taking photos following the assassination of a top general. He is now in exile. The journalist Jean Bigirimana remains missing since July 22, 2016 , after he was taken by people believed to be members of Burundi’s National Intelligence Service. Attempts by his family and employer Iwacu newspaper to find him have been unsuccessful.
 The newspaper believes that Jean Bigirimana was disappeared because of his work and activities as a journalist. The Burundian police spokesperson has denied these allegations.

Jean Bigirimana — © Iwacu

In the eight countries in the Caucasus/Central Asia area, there are 22 currently imprisoned journalists, comprising almost 10 percent of the 259 imprisoned journalists worldwide reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Azerbaijan, nine journalists have been imprisoned since 2012 with four new arrests made in 2016 and another arrest this past February. In Kazakhstan this past February, Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of the independent newspaper Sayasi kalam/Tribuna, was arrested and charged with money laundering; he had previously written about official corruption.

In Sri Lanka, journalist Freddy Gamage was beaten in June 2016 by men he identified as supporters of a politician in the town of Negombo. He had been previously threatened over articles he wrote exposing the politician’s alleged corruption and links to organized crime. Impunity persisted for past attacks on media workers; according to media NGOs, attacks included some 44 killings since 2004. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared on Jan. 24, 2010, two days after publishing an article critical of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Prageeth Eknaligoda © Private

One group of journalists is at elevated risk for violence and intimidation, not only for what they write, but for who they are: women. Women journalists around the world face the same risks as men working in the field. But in addition, women journalists endure harassment, threats, defamation, physical and sexual assaults and sometimes murder simply because they are women. In 2000, after exposing an underground arms trafficking network, Jineth Bedoya Lima, the deputy editor of a Colombian newspaper, was kidnapped and raped. During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Lara Logan, an experienced war zone reporter, was violently sexually assaulted by a mob of men in Tahrir Square, beaten with sticks and repeatedly raped.

In some cases, the threat comes from those closest to the journalist. When women break family and cultural norms to pursue their work in journalism in places where women are expected to stay out of the public space, they risk retaliation from their own relatives and family members. In some patriarchal societies, women who are too bold in public are considered in violation of the family’s “honor”. Since 2002, at least four women journalists were killed in Afghanistan by relatives.

Women journalists are sometimes punished for investigating and reporting on taboo issues or traditional practices that affect women. In 2012, after reporting on the dangers of female genital mutilation, Liberian journalist Mae Azongo had to go into hiding with her nine-year-old daughter. In Iran, writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was sentenced to six years in prison for writing a story about stoning as a punishment for adultery, even though it was not even published.

Separation from their children is another tactic used against women journalists. When Larysa Schiryakova reported on the government crackdown on peaceful protests in Belarus, she was informed that her son would be taken away to a children’s home if she persisted.

Larysa Schiryakova and her son © Private

Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we can and must defend the valiant women and men who risk their lives and physical integrity to bring to light stories that otherwise would not be told. Please take action today for: Larysa Schiryakova in Belarus, Jean Bigirimana in Burundi, and Prageeth Eknaligoda in Sri Lanka. With our support and the continued courage of thousands of journalists, we’ll maintain the fundamental right to freedom of expression.