Press under siege: How the law is being used to gag journalists

Journalists march during a peaceful procession to mark the World Press Freedom Day in Kisii in May last year.

Journalists march during a peaceful procession to mark the World Press Freedom Day in Kisii in May last year.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Journalists across the globe are grappling with a new threat; the law is being weaponised to criminalise media practice to silence them.

This is according to research conducted by the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in 2022, combined with contributions from 37 media freedom experts and the first-hand experience of nearly 500 alumni — representing 106 countries — from the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s journalism training programmes.

Records collected by media freedom organisations show that an alarming number of journalists are being imprisoned globally. A whopping 363 were jailed at the end of 2022. This is according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while Reporters Without Borders recorded 533.

“While only a handful of countries jail journalists in large numbers, legal attacks are happening everywhere, including in the world’s leading democracies,” the new survey stated.

Nearly 50 per cent of respondents said they, or their media organisation, were facing legal threats. This illustrates the sheer scale of the war against journalism.

Eight key legal threats to journalists that were identified and analysed ranged from defamation to cybercrime and national security laws such as ‘espionage’ or ‘treason’, “which are misused to silence and harass journalists reporting on sensitive topics such as organised crime, corruption, human rights issues and conflict” the report stated. 

Examples of journalists paying for holding power to account include Katsiaryna Andreyeva, a correspondent for Belsat in Belarus, who was found guilty of ‘state treason’ in 2022, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

In Vietnam, in 2021, Pham Doan Trang was sentenced to nine years in prison after a one-day trial for spreading anti-state propaganda. She was charged with highlighting human rights and democracy in Vietnam for the Luat Khoa legal magazine, which she founded.

In Algeria, Mohamed Mouloudj spent 13 months in pre-trial detention on terrorism charges for requesting an interview with a member of the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), an opposition group declared a terrorist organisation by the government.

One of Brazil’s richest men has filed at least 37 lawsuits, many alleging defamation, against journalists and media organisations that have exposed his close ties to the Bolsonaro administration.

Civil defamation suits

Since 2019, journalists and media organisations in the United States have faced civil defamation suits with wildly inflated damage claims brought by former President Donald Trump and his political allies.

This includes former Congressman Devin Nunes, who sued CNN for $435 million (Sh59 billion) over an article published in 2019 that alleged Nunes had met with a former Ukrainian official in Austria. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in February 2021, a decision later affirmed by the US federal appeals court.

Abuse of defamation laws is the leading legal weaponry unleashed against journalists to prevent open public debate and shield powerful individuals from legitimate criticism. Online expression has also become a new target for criminal defamation, aligning with a growing trend to criminalise speech on the internet through defamation and insult provisions that are integrated into cybersecurity, anti-terrorism or hate speech legislation.

This is followed closely by governments' race to criminalise criticism and social unrest. Reporters who cover events such as demonstrations organised by critics of the government are arrested and charged for creating unrest. There is also an increasing reliance on national security and public order offenses to convict journalists.

“Often, these offences punish expression based on the possible impact it could have on national security and public order. The laws are frequently used to suppress domestic political dissent,” the report stated.

Other than prosecutions for speech offenses, national authorities are increasingly accusing, charging and convicting journalists under non-speech-related crimes, particularly financial crimes, such as tax evasion, fraud and money laundering.

There is also the disturbing trend of “clubbing” journalists by bombarding them with multiple legal charges for each instance of journalistic activity where one article can be sued with up to seven different charges.

The aftermath of such a hostile environment for journalists greatly affects the reporters physically, emotionally and financially, particularly those who face the risk of going to jail, being bankrupted or repeatedly being dragged into court.

Legal  reforms

But it is not all gloom and doom; the report says some states, along with advocacy organisations and legal groups after recognising these legal threats, are developing actions and responses. These range from promoting legal reform to applying diplomatic pressure, to curtail the worst abuses and ensure that the rights of journalists are protected.

The survey noted that the courts have upheld protections for freedom of the press in several countries, issuing landmark decisions on insult laws, sedition, defamation, and the protection of journalistic sources. In various Latin American countries, there has been a positive progressive modification of desacato (contempt) laws, and enhanced protection of sources.

“For years, the deliberate targeting and silencing of journalists by those invested in controlling the free flow of information has been surging. In an era defined by converging global crises, journalists who hold power to account are increasingly making enemies of the powerful,” Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO Antonio Zappula noted.

His sentiment was echoed by Andrew Heslop, WAN-IFRA’s Executive Director for Press Freedom who contributed to the report.

“The use of the law as a weapon against independent media has been a favoured tactic of governments the world over for many years,” he said. Sustained international attention, tangible government action to curb negative legislative trends, and expanded access to legal support to prevent and defend against these threats are urgently needed.