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Maria Ressa, the award-winning head of a Philippine online news site Rappler. Image: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

What press freedom in authoritarian states tells us about our own

Journalist Peter Greste knows better than most the human cost of censorship and state control over journalism.

Peter Greste

For most Australians, press freedom can feel like a fuzzy, abstract concept. An idea we might recognise but hardly ever think about it. It makes sense at first glance (who wouldn’t support a free press?), but is hard to describe in practice. And anyway, is it really something us 'lucky Australians' should worry about? Our government doesn’t shut down irritating newspapers or rip the fingernails out of its published critics...

In fact, whenever we crank open the firehose of information that pours out of our smart phones, at times it can feel as though there is too much press freedom.

I suspect that illusion of being well-informed is one reason why Australians seem to be so disengaged from the debates around media freedom and national security that emerged after Australian Federal Police raided journalists in June.

“It is about protecting the right of ordinary citizens to have a source of information about their government and the powerful that isn’t state-sanctioned puffery.”

But those who live in dictatorships understand something fundamental that seems to have been lost in our own press freedom debates. Without it, all people are left with is government propaganda.

Press freedom is not so much about protecting the rights of a handful of privileged journalists to stick their noses into the guts of government. It is about protecting the right of ordinary citizens to have a source of information about their government and the powerful that isn’t state-sanctioned puffery. It is about the system of transparency and accountability that is such an essential part of any properly functioning democracy.

That is also why press freedom is a pretty good benchmark for the overall health of a democracy.

They get it in Egypt, where millions of ordinary people filled the streets in protest at the corruption and oppression of the Mubarak regime. They paid a huge price in blood for their revolution to win some of the freedoms that we take for granted, including a media free to investigate and criticize the government. From the end of Mubarak in January 2011, or a few years at least, they appeared to be winning.

Peter Greste is an Australian journalist who was a political prisoner in Egypt for 12 months for reporting which was deemed "damaging to national security". Image: Jay Cronan

“The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists now ranks Egypt as the world’s third worst for imprisoning journalists...”

But then, in the middle of 2013, there was a coup and the revolution collapsed. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists now ranks Egypt as the world’s third worst for imprisoning journalists, with 25 currently behind bars, according to their very conservative count (not including bloggers or ‘media workers’).

Russia isn’t quite so prolific at locking up journalists – the CPJ counts four in prison – but that is because country’s officials are more sophisticated in the way they handle irritating journalists. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an explosion of independent news services. But the former KGB officer and now President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his hold over the country, and those green shoots of democracy appear to have withered. Another organization – Reporters Without Borders – places Russia at #149 out of 180 countries for press freedom (where #1 – Norway – is the world’s freest). Russia is only 14 places ahead of Egypt.

In its assessment of Russia’s media environment, RSF says “with draconian laws and website blocking, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily… leading independent news outlets have either been bought under control or throttled out of existence.

“Murders and physical attacks against journalist continue to go unpunished.”

Closer to home, another former dictatorship that appears to have reverted to a subtler form of authoritarianism is the Philippines. In June 2016, at his swearing-in ceremony, the newly elected president Rodrigo Duturte grimly declared, “Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”

Three journalists have already been murdered so far this year (at the time of writing), and RSF suspects agents working for local politicians were to blame. But the government has also developed what RSF calls a “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against the news website Rappler, and its editor Maria Ressa. While most of the government’s ire has been directed at Rappler, it sends an unequivocally clear message to every other journalist working in the country: toe the line or suffer the consequences.

And the Philippines’ place on RSF’s scale? It sits at #134.

Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah, co-founder and Chief Editor of Mada Masr. Image: Francesca Leonard

If those three countries make up something of a rouge’s gallery for press freedom, then it is fitting to have four journalists on stage at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival, on a panel called My Crime is Journalism.

Lina Attalah is was one of the Egyptian journalists beaten by security forces while she was covering the 2011 uprising. Described by Time Magazine as “muckraker of the Arab World”, she is co-founder and Chief Editor of Mada Masr, a Cairo-based news website ‘to secure a home for a dislocated practice of independent journalism that did not survive in mainstream organizations.’

Like Lina, Irina Borogan understands viscerally what a lack of press freedom looks like. A Russian journalist, Irina specialises in investigating the Russian security services – a job that has already put her in front of FSB agents.

And perhaps most famously of all, Rappler editor Maria Ressa made it to the cover of Time Magazine for her courageous defence of press freedom in the face of the Filipino government’s continued pressure.

So, why then is the fourth panellist Steve Coll, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York? Surely the United States, with its First Amendment proudly embedding press freedom into the DNA of its constitution, has no place among such a group.

Perhaps. But RSF puts the USA at #48, behind the likes of Botswana (#44), Papua New Guinea (#38) and Burkina Faso (#36). That is partly because the President himself has dismissed critical reporting as “fake news”, branded the press “the enemy of the people” and locked several journalists out of the White House press briefings. That appears to have unleashed a plague of bomb threats at newsrooms across the country, and in June 2018, a gunman entered the Capital Gazette in Virginia, killing five people including four journalists.

Of course, rankings tell us nothing about the global trends. RSF, the CPJ both agree with the assessment of a third democracy watchdog, Freedom House. In its annual report, it declared that press freedom is in the worst state for a decade.

“The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming,” the report said.

However abstract the idea of press freedom might feel to Australians, it is something we all ought to be discussing.

Peter Greste moderates the My Crime is Journalism Antidote panel, featuring Lina Attalah, Irina Borogan, Steve Coll and Maria Ressa. Attalah also appears on the Who Gets to Speak panel. Both sessions are supported by Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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