We must do more to protect journalists globally

Over the past year, imprisonment of journalists and violence against media professionals have spiked.

Shireen Abu Akleh
Artist Jaber Abbas applies final touches to a mural that he painted in Nazareth to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank on May 11, 2022 [File: Reuters/Ammar Awad]

In every corner of the world, journalists are intimidated and locked up at distressing rates and far too many are killed just for doing their jobs.

On this World Press Freedom Day, there is much to be concerned about given the threats that journalists are facing daily. There is also much work to do to ensure that we have a world that recognises the need to guarantee the right to press freedom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is reporting a sharp rise in the number of journalists killed on the job in 2022. A total of 67 media workers died in the field, which is an almost 50 percent increase from 2021.

The raging war in Ukraine is largely responsible for the uptick in the killing of journalists but there are other countries, notably Mexico and Haiti, where we are losing colleagues for reporting on the front lines or standing up to the tyranny of police states and terrorists.

The escalating violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is also claiming lives. In May 2022, Israeli forces killed veteran American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli military raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank.

CPJ is also reporting that a record number of journalists were imprisoned in 2022, a sign of a weakening of those press freedoms worldwide. There were 363 journalists detained in more than 30 countries last year, with the highest number of detainees held in Iran, China and Myanmar. The overall figure is nearly double from 2015 and the highest since the press freedom group began tracking imprisonments three decades ago.

The recent arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Moscow on trumped-up “espionage” charges has coincided with the news last week that a leading journalist in China named Dong Yuyu will be facing trial on similarly exaggerated charges of spying. These two arrests are two sides of the same coin: A crackdown on journalism by two authoritarian states that are intent on eroding press freedom.

The Chinese journalist, Yuyu, works for a major state media outlet called Guangming Daily, where he is an editor and commentator. He was a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2007, where I had a chance to meet him, and he is well known and respected for his forthright assessments and clear analysis of the challenges that China is facing. He was arrested a year ago, but his family just decided to go public as he is facing trial and up to 10 years in prison.

Gershkovich, the 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter based in Russia, was detained while on a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg in March. He is the first American journalist since the Cold War to be arrested by Russian security services. The Journal, the White House and press advocacy groups around the world deny Russia’s claims that he was a spy and have called for his immediate release.

Beyond the illegal arrests and detentions and beyond the killing of journalists, there is also a wave of harassment that is occurring daily, particularly targeting women, across the world.

Journalists like Pakistan’s Gharida Farooqi, have been the target of a vicious campaign of profane and menacing harassment.

The struggle she has had just trying to do her job exemplifies a global epidemic of online harassment that quells the voices of thousands of women journalists worldwide who have been targeted, humiliated and attacked while in the field doing interviews, attending public events and covering breaking stories.

In a survey of some 700 women journalists conducted by the nonprofit Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and UNESCO, nearly three out of four women journalists said they had suffered online abuse in their work. Some 30 percent of the respondents said they were self-censoring on social media, while 38 percent tried to make themselves less visible online.

The report stated: “Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally.”

The GroundTruth Project stands in solidarity with these colleagues and joins the CPJ, the Nieman Foundation and a long list of other advocacy organisations calling for justice for the killing and wrongful detention and intimidation campaigns online of journalists. GroundTruth has joined many news organisations in calling for the immediate release of both Gershkovich and Yuyu as well as too many other reporters wrongfully detained in Myanmar, Iran, Egypt, Nicaragua and a list of countries that is distressingly long.

The organisation is expanding its Report for the World programme, which seeks to support independent media in countries around the world where we are seeing that an erosion of local journalism is running parallel to an erosion of democracy.

On this World Press Freedom Day, we ask everyone to do what they can to support journalists who must be free to be out there on the ground in the most challenging places on earth to bring home the stories that matter and to do so without fearing for their lives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.