Crackdown on journalists: State security vs human rights

There’s an alarming upsurge in the use of national security and counter-terrorism laws to silence journalists.

Journalists and photojournalists demonstrate in Cairo against repeated attacks on members of the press in Egypt [AFP]

The trial of three Al Jazeera reporters continues in Cairo, amid heightened international scrutiny and criticism of the interim government’s crackdown on journalists ahead of next month’s presidential elections. The foreign correspondents – charged as terrorists for aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood – are among scores of domestic journalists jailed by the military-backed government since ousting President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

These measures have dashed hopes for a democratic resolution to the tumult of Egypt’s political change – and put Egypt on par with the world’s most press-hostile regimes.

Yet, it also spotlights the alarming upsurge in the use of national security and counter-terrorism laws to silence journalists, by both undemocratic and democratic governments alike. Human rights groups in recent years have warned of the growing misuse of anti-terrorism laws by authorities to stifle and punish journalists on grounds of national security. This trend is driving steady declines in press freedom at both state and global levels. Of the 232 imprisoned journalists worldwide in 2012, more than half were incarcerated on anti-terrorism charges, according to data monitored by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Although no US journalist has been successfully prosecuted under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, US President Barack Obama’s administration has aggressively utilised the Espionage Act of 1917 to crackdown on government whistleblowers who leak classified information to journalists.

This trend is linked to the spate of national security legislation introduced by states around the world over the past decade. According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, 144 of the world’s 195 countries have passed new counter-terrorism laws since 9/11 – and a majority of these are “overbroad”, often including provisions against disrupting “public order”, along with broad powers for warrantless searches, surveillance and detentions. Collectively, these laws represent a “dangerous expansion of powers to detain and prosecute people, including peaceful political opponents”, according to the organisation.

National security vs civil liberties

On this front, Western governments face growing criticism for their leading role in putting national security concerns ahead of civil liberties – a legacy of former US President George W Bush-era “war on terror” policies amplified into the present day. The US and European governments increasingly rely on post-2001 anti-terrorism laws to shield government secrets and constrain journalists from publishing classified information.

These measures have been hastened in the post-WikiLeaks, post-Edward Snowden era. Although no US journalist has been successfully prosecuted under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, US President Barack Obama’s administration has aggressively utilised the Espionage Act of 1917 to crackdown on government whistleblowers who leak classified information to journalists – a measure decried by reporters and human rights groups for undercutting basic democratic tenants and the media’s watchdog role.

Along with exposing the US government’s massive domestic surveillance programme, the Snowden case also reveals an increasing willingness among democratic governments – as well as among prosecutors and courts – to opt for national security over journalists’ rights, especially in cases involving state secrets.

In the UK, a high court this February ruled that authorities had acted in accordance with the Terrorism Act 2000, and “in the interest of national security”, when they detained David Miranda, partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who had classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden. More recently, prosecutors in Slovenia charged journalist Anuska Delic with publishing classified secrets for her coverage of links between the former prime minister’s political party and a far-right group. Delic, who faces three years in prison if found guilty, says she is a target of a politically motivated investigation by authorities, who are pressuring her to divulge her sources.

Growing attempts by European governments to silence journalists for national security reasons is worrying for EU policy makers, especially in light of efforts to prevent democratic backsliding as the EU expands. Among the handful of candidate countries seeking EU membership, Macedonia and Turkey pose special challenges, and intensifying pressure on journalists in both countries have stalled these states’ accession progress. In Macedonia, prominent online journalist and outspoken government critic Zoran Bozinovski was arrested last November on charges of criminal espionage – part of a growing wave of political pressure on the country’s journalists that has drawn rebukes from lawmakers in Brussels.

Worst offenders

The situation is more complicated in Turkey – a key NATO ally – where concerns over human rights violations have gridlocked EU accession for decades. Turkish authorities rank among the world’s worst offenders, with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, ahead of Iran and China. An estimated 76 Turkish journalists were in prison in 2012, a majority of whom were held on terrorism-related charges. The swell in detentions and arrests of Turkish reporters comes after authorities revised the country’s national security laws in 2005, in an effort to deal with clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which Turkish authorities and Western allies list as a terrorist organisation. According to a review by Committee to Protect Journalists, roughly 70 percent of those jailed in 2012 were Kurdish journalists charged with aiding terrorism for covering PKK activities.

Yet as the US and other Western governments condemn states like Turkey, Iran and now Egypt, for violating freedom of expression rights, they find themselves on increasingly slippery grounds. The massive expansion of counter-terrorism programmes since 2001 has toppled the intricate balance between state security and human rights, enabling governments everywhere to justify an ever-widening envelope of abuses, including torture, mass surveillance and imprisoning journalists.

Indeed targets of Western criticism are quick to point out how US and Western governments have legitimised human rights breaches in the name of national security. In response to a joint statement issued by 27 countries condemning violence against demonstrators and crackdowns on the media in Egypt, Egyptian UN delegates reminded the signatories to “consider the credibility of their statements”, pointing to a litany of abuses conducted by these states under “the banner of the ‘war on terror'”.

The trial of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt has earned much-warranted notice in the international media and has focused the world’s attention on the country’s rapidly deteriorating human rights conditions, especially for journalists. It should also trigger renewed discussions about how to recalibrate the balance between state security and human rights.  

Amy Brouillette is Director of the European Media Project at the Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS), the School of Public Policy, at Central European University in Budapest. She currently leads the centre’s research and projects on European and Hungarian media policy.