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4 Ways to Recognize Threats Against Journalism (& How to Fight Back)

In the US, a free press is an important part of keeping government representatives honest as well as a way for politicians to spread…
4 Ways to Recognize Threats Against Journalism (& How to Fight Back)

In the US, a free press is an important part of keeping government representatives honest as well as a way for politicians to spread political ideas and gain popular support. The Trump administration’s overt hostility towards the media has led members of the Columbia Journalism Review to write an open letter to the president asking him to clarify the relationship between his administration and the press.

“Everything [Trump] does has an impact not only on journalists in this country and their ability to perform this critical role, but it sets a global standard. It makes it easier for autocratic leaders around the world to justify their own repressive policies.” — Joel Simon, the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in a Q&A session with Poynter.

With the US’s press freedom in question, we spoke with Storyhunter journalists around the world and to CPJ about how to recognize when free press is threatened.

2016 World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) presents the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

1. The press’s integrity is attacked.

When leaders like Russian President Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were democratically elected, they used their power to take down the institutions that spoke out against them — which started with delegitimizing the press.

“There are many examples in Latin America. Leaders in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela are accusing the media of being the main enemy of the government and made consistent efforts in trying to depict the media as the corrupt elite and the opposition. They have been very successful in those efforts.” — Carlos Lauria, the Senior Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists Americas program

In the US, the press has recently faced similar challenges from the Trump administration, where the mainstream media has been repeatedly called “fake news” and labeled as “the opposition party.” This leads to the public’s mistrust of media and undermines their ability to inform people about what is happening in government.

2. News is controlled.

According to Storyhunter journalist Nezaket Zeynalli in Azerbaijan, which is on the CPJ’s ten most censored countries list, authoritarian governments try to control existing press or create new media outlets that will be sympathetic towards their cause.

“Media is not the fourth estate in Azerbaijan. It is controlled by a few powerful institutions. Because of that journalists are not free and there are many examples of propaganda and ordered articles. Local stations are totally under censorship. The only independent media that exists is Radio Liberty (Azadlig radiosu) that was closed and only airs in neighboring countries and Meydan TV, a local news outlet paid for by Azerbaijanis living abroad. Our government builds and gifts flats to journalists or presents awards and honors with titles to those who praise it.” — Nezaket Zeynalli

With the threat to journalists, media outlets will even start censoring themselves. Marat Sadikov, a journalist at a federal TV station in Moscow told us that the station can’t criticize the government.

When info comes from reporters, higher-ups are afraid to present things how we [reporters] see it. So they write it the way it should be according to the political agenda. Things like the image of the president are very filtered. You cannot say bad things about government.” — Marat Sadikov

The Trump administration, which has direct ties to the conservative publisher, Breitbart News, is hostile towards media companies that criticize it, while praising outlets that are more sympathetic towards the administration.

Dividing the media in this way reinforces the positive news Trump supporters receive about him and delegitimizes independent news outlets as a whole.

3. Laws are created to limit press freedom.

CPJ’s Carlos Lauria told us that the president in Ecuador uses state TV, radio, and weekly addresses to label journalists as mediocre and liars in order to stir the public’s distrust. This has led to the government passing legislation that regulates free speech. In 2015, Ecuador passed a communications law that heavily regulates media content — one of the most restrictive laws in Latin America.


Before his election, Trump promised to “open up our libel laws,” so that journalists could be sued. With echoes of Ecuador’s authoritarianism in the Trump Administration, CPJ is worried about a looming crisis.

“We’re very worried about the next step. What is going to be the next step? How are these statements and sentiments going to be transformed into policy? Leaders around the world see that they’re not going to face the kind of pressure that they’ve traditionally faced from the United States when there are press freedom issues and there are violations. So that’s the crisis, as we see it.” — Joel Simon, CPJ

4. Individual journalists are threatened.

Even without policies limiting free press, journalists are threatened, jailed, or even killed in restrictive countries. Even the US has seen journalists recently arrested while reporting at the pipeline protests in North Dakota and Inauguration protests.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has intimidated and harassed media companies and imprisoned more journalists than any other country in 2016, using laws against libel and terrorism to justify his actions. According to the CPJ, crackdowns on media and laws against free speech force some journalists to turn away from traditional media organizations to freelancing.

“Journalists are going out to cover dangerous assignments without the support of the mainstream media and are doing it for independent and freelance media, which puts them in danger. It’s a very challenging time for media.” — Carlos Lauria

The unusual levels of intimidation and threats directed at journalists after the election of Trump led the CPJ to issue safety tips for covering the US presidential inauguration. IJNet called this an unprecedented move and said that it indicates conditions for US journalists have worsened.

How Journalists Can Fight Back

Once journalists can recognize how free press is being threatened and understand the implications of it in history, they can fight back against it. Nezaket reminded us that the US still has the luxury of press freedoms and that we should use them:

“My American colleagues need to support each other and fight for truth and for the democracy. All over the world, media is only partially free — it serves the interests of the rich and powerful. But the American constitution has not changed for 200 years and court is not so corrupt, so society can fight for its rights. We must continuously develop journalists’ skills and knowledge to provide an international platform and integrate to a world standard.” — Nezaket Zeynalli

As journalists, how do you fight against threats to free press? Tell us in the comments below.

By Jindalae Suh, Writer at Storyhunter