By Maya Taal
On August 31, 2013, Der Spiegel reported that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) had hacked into the private communications of Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera. The German news magazine, citing documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reported that the NSA deemed its operation to access the communications of interesting targets specially protected by Al-Jazeera “a notable success.”
As of late in the year, the action against Al-Jazeera was the only reported instance of the NSA directly spying on any news outlet. But continuing revelations based on the documents obtained by Snowden paint a picture of wide-ranging surveillance by the U.S. and its allies–surveillance that presents a clear threat to global Internet privacy and therefore to freedom of the press worldwide. Digital communication has become essential to newsgathering, and the decentralized nature of the Internet has until now sheltered many journalists around the world who are restricted from reporting or expressing their opinion in traditional media. Furthermore, the U.S. government has undermined its own global leadership position on free expression and Internet openness, especially when it comes to battling efforts by repressive countries like China and Iran to restrict the Internet.
“Countries who seek to gain control over their people through the Internet have their own agendas. They are in search of larger governmental control or even censorship online,” said Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and leader on Internet freedom issues. “We must ensure the NSA-triggered debate does not become a race to the bottom,” she told CPJ.
The mass surveillance programs by the U.S. and U.K., as well as restrictive Internet legislation by various governments and a wave of cyberattacks globally, are among the alarming developments that have landed cyberspace on CPJ’s Risk List.
CPJ developed the Risk List in 2012 to highlight countries where press freedom is on the decline. This year, we chose to add the supranational platform of cyberspace to the list because of the profound erosion of freedom on the Internet, a critical sphere for journalists worldwide. In 2013, CPJ also identified Egypt and Bangladesh, torn apart by political polarization, with journalists caught in the middle; Syria, which continues to be wracked by violent conflict; and authoritarian Vietnam. Also included are Ecuador, Liberia, Russia, Turkey, and Zambia–all nominal democracies where the space for free expression and independent newsgathering is rapidly shrinking.
The list is based on the expertise of CPJ staff, but also takes into account press freedom indicators such as journalist fatalities and imprisonments, restrictive legislation, state censorship, impunity in anti-press attacks, and journalists driven into exile. Those places on the Risk List are not the worst press freedom offenders, but rather spots where CPJ documented the most significant deterioration of the media climate during 2013. Countries on CPJ’s first Risk List in 2012 but not on this year’s list have not necessarily improved–they have simply been displaced by more recent developments.
Trends witnessed in 2013 include:
- Deterioration in several indicators, including fatalities and censorship, in Egypt
- New legislation to stifle free speech in Ecuador, Liberia, Russia, Vietnam, and Zambia
- Firings and forced resignations of journalists in Turkey at the government’s behest
- Targeted violence against journalists in Bangladesh and Russia, and a soaring rate of abductions in Syria
- Crackdowns on online journalism in Russia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh
Perhaps nowhere did press freedom decline more dramatically in 2013 than Egypt, where persecution of critical reporters under President Mohamed Morsi was radically reversed mid-way through the year when the military ousted him from office and launched a crackdown on pro-Morsi news outlets. At least six journalists had been killed as of late in the year, making the country the third deadliest place to work after Syria and Iraq. Dozens of journalists were detained at least briefly. In addition to state-sponsored censorship, a climate of self-censorship took root.
Negative trends in Liberia and Zambia are of special concern as both are led by governments that promised a new era of freedom of expression. Instead, both places were marked by the continuous and public vilification of the press by authorities, and the systematic muzzling of journalists through the courts. Turkey had already damaged its image as a rising democracy by abusing anti-terror laws to imprison journalists, especially Kurdish ones. Through both verbal and physical attacks on local and international journalists during the Gezi Park protests, Turkey further squeezed the space for independent reporting.
Ecuador and Russia both implemented wide-ranging, vague legislation that gives the government extensive powers to stifle dissent. Ecuador, already known for its abuse of defamation laws, adopted a new Communications Law with broad powers of censorship. The law will be enforced by a state watchdog loyal to President Rafael Correa. Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency was marked by a rollback of the modest reforms under Dmitry Medvedev, and an increasingly hostile atmosphere for the press. Vietnam issued a new decree that greatly restricted speech on the Internet, a move that threatens the bloggers who represent the country’s only independent media.
Political polarization wracked Bangladesh in 2013, and the line between politics and journalism became more blurred than ever. Journalists were attacked from all sides during a series of protests sparked by political wounds and religious tensions dating back to the country’s secession from Pakistan in 1971.
In Syria, extremely dangerous conditions for reporters became even worse. In addition to remaining the deadliest country for journalists, abductions became increasingly common, making it nearly impossible to cover the uprising.
Here are capsule reports on the 10 places named to the CPJ Risk List:
Profound new threats to journalists emerged in the supranational sphere of cyberspace in 2013. The Internet revolutionized the practice of journalism largely by the absence of government control, but its decentralized nature was in jeopardy as many countries stepped up efforts to monitor or disrupt the free flow of digital information.
News stories based on classified documents obtained from former NSA contractor Snowden revealed extensive surveillance both within and without U.S. borders, potentially chilling newsgathering activities, which rely on confidentiality. Experts say the collection of metadata gives authorities the capability to map a journalist’s contacts and activity via transactional records such as the time and date of phone calls, the numbers called, location data, and more.
“Everybody is afraid to be a source,” said Thomas Peele, a veteran investigative reporter based in the San Francisco Bay area. “Now, reporters are back to looking for payphones, and red flags in flower pots, because anybody knows that to use a government email to contact a reporter on the fly, or to be in a government office, use a government-issued phone or cell phone to contact a reporter, to use a private email account, but logged on through a government computer, can very easily be found out in this day and age.”
Journalists and sources outside the U.S. are particularly vulnerable to exposure because they do not enjoy the privacy protections afforded by U.S. law. According to the Guardian, the U.K.’s electronic eavesdropping and security agency, GCHQ, cooperates with the NSA to gather information from technology companies. Also in the U.K., a bill labeled the “snooper’s charter” by critics, which would give law enforcement greater ability to monitor Internet use, was still being promoted by some British officials in late 2013 despite strong opposition from certain politicians.
Violations of digital privacy by the U.S. and U.K. governments undermine their moral authority and ability to challenge other countries that restrict Internet freedom. These include China, one of the staunchest critics of U.S. Internet hegemony. In September, Chinese authorities squeezed already-tight controls over social media with new rules that could result in prison time for users who post comments deemed libelous that are widely reposted. In Singapore, a new licensing scheme for news websites was seen as a way to extend censorship of traditional media to the Internet. Bahraini authorities hacked into social media accounts to prosecute their anonymous users. These moves were in addition to repressive action against online journalists in Bangladesh, Russia, and Vietnam as detailed elsewhere in the Risk List.
A wave of cyberattacks also hit a range of media outlets in 2013. Both The New York Timesand The Wall Street Journal reported attempts by Chinese hackers to access their communications. Leading up to June elections in Iran, opposition websites were hacked, and Google said tens of thousands of Iranian email users were targeted. The Syrian Electronic Army claimed credit for several cyberattacks, including one on the Twitter feed of The Associated Press, where a false tweet about a White House explosion caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall 143 points. Further from the centers of global power, journalists covering armed conflict in Burma said their email accounts were compromised by state-sponsored attackers. The Guatemalan news outlet elPeriódico said it had been targeted in a series of cyberattacks as it published stories alleging corruption in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration.
Over the year, the Egyptian press became increasingly polarized politically. While in power, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his allies used highly charged rhetoric and legal harassment to intimidate critical journalists. CPJ documented at least 78 assaults against journalists from August 2012 until Morsi’s fall from power in July 2013. Muslim Brotherhood supporters were responsible for 72 of the attacks, CPJ found, with a handful of other assaults committed by opposition groups against journalists perceived to be aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation turned abruptly against Morsi’s supporters after his ouster by the Egyptian military, which closed or heavily censored pro-Morsi news outlets. Foreign news organizations seen as unsympathetic to the military regime, including CNN and Al-Jazeera, were systematically harassed. Since the military took control, at least five journalists were killed, 30 assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. CPJ has documented the detention of at least 44 journalists. At least five journalists remained behind bars in late 2013.
The government’s grip on all media tightened with the imposition of a nationwide state of emergency. Journalists who deviate from the official narrative are in danger of censorship, arrest, prosecution, or assault. There’s a sense among reporters that while Morsi’s efforts to intimidate the press into silence largely failed, military censorship is starting to take root. “There was definitely a barrier of fear that was broken around January 2011, and I have to say it has come back,” said Lina Attalah, chief editor of Mada Masr, harking back to the exhilarating early days following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. “There is a feeling that we are not able to practice the journalism we had hoped to after the revolution.”
As Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the implementation of a series of draconian laws and the prosecution of government opponents have led to the most oppressive and anti-Western climate since the Cold War.
According to new laws enacted in late 2012, local human rights groups and independent watchdogs that receive funding from abroad are required to register as “foreign agents.” Russian journalists fear that they can be persecuted for gathering information from organizations not condoned by the government.
On September 18, British freelance journalist Kieron Bryan and Russian freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov were detained and accused of piracy while covering a Greenpeace protest on a ship in the Pechora Sea. When journalists cover certain actions, “the authorities can treat you not as a journalist but as an activist, and this is a new reality,” said Elena Milashina, CPJ’s Moscow correspondent. “If they can do this to foreigners, imagine what they can do with local journalists.” The government has also meddled with reporters covering the upcoming Olympic Games. Authorities “actually came to every journalist I talked to (in Sochi), and they showed the limits of what they could cover and made the journalists feel those limits,” said Milashina, who writes for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Two Russian journalists, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev and Mikhail Beketov, died as a result of their work in 2013. No one has been arrested in connection with their deaths. Unsolved journalist murders continue to pile up, exacerbating the climate of fear. In at least 32 such cases, no killer or instigator has been brought to justice, according to CPJ research.
The already perilous conditions for journalists in Syria worsened in 2013. For the second year in a row, Syria witnessed the most cases of journalists killed, with at least 29 deaths as of late in the year. In addition, approximately 30 journalists were still unaccounted for in Syria, according to CPJ research.
A sharp decline in security conditions has made it virtually impossible for foreign journalists to work in Syria. International news organizations increasingly rely on freelancers. The Rory Peck Trust, a group dedicated to the safety of freelancers, released a statement in August urging journalists to reconsider going to Syria. “This is a new situation where no amount of planning or preparation can reliably reduce the possibility of kidnappings or abduction,” the group said.
Dozens of journalists have been abducted by various sides in the conflict, including government forces and pro-government militias; rebel or rebel-affiliated groups; and non-Syrian Islamic extremist groups. Among the rebel groups, the kidnapping of journalists for money or the exchange of prisoners has become increasingly common. In government-controlled territories, foreign journalists continue to be detained and for longer periods of time. Local journalists working without permission are promptly detained or disappear. “Citizen journalism has been demolished inside government-controlled areas in terms of security,” said Rami Jarrah, an exiled Syrian blogger and activist. Several journalists were being held by the Assad government in late 2013.
Those who do manage to practice journalism in Syria are heavily censored by whichever faction controls the territory. “You can be a journalist in any part of the country but you have to be part of an agreement and you have to follow the narrative that they want,” Jarrah said. “If you are an independent journalist, you are in danger wherever you are.”
Vietnam’s crackdown on independent bloggers that began in 2008 intensified in 2013. In Asia, Vietnam is second only to China for the number of journalists jailed, according to CPJ’s annual prison census. Among the reporters being held is Nguyen Van Hai, known in Vietnam’s blogosphere as Dieu Cay, a blogger imprisoned since 2008. He is a recipient of CPJ’s 2013 International Press Freedom Award.
In January, five bloggers who contributed regularly to the Catholic Church’s Vietnam Redemptorist News were sentenced to harsh jail terms and follow-up periods of house arrest for various anti-state crimes. At mid-year, three prominent bloggers, Dinh Nhat Uy, Pham Viet Dao, and Truong Duy Nhat, were detained because their blogging activities had “abused democratic freedoms.” After a one-day trial, Uy was sentenced in October to a 15-month suspended prison sentence and one year of house arrest. The other two bloggers were still being held without formal charge in late 2013. Blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi was beaten, stripped, and forced to undergo a vaginal cavity search by state nurses while in custody at Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward in Ho Chi Minh City. Critical blogger Le Anh Hung was arrested and committed to a psychiatric institution against his will.
As Vietnam lacks any privately run media, the blogosphere is the only space for critical reporting. The government’s efforts to shut it down were reflected in a decree enacted on September 1, 2013, that specifically targets bloggers and social media users. Among other provisions, Decree 72 on the Management, Provision, and Use of Internet Services and Online Information bans Vietnamese Internet users from linking to or reposting news from international media outlets and restricts the types of content that foreign companies are allowed to host on their Vietnam-related websites or platforms. “Naturally we all fear being thrown into jail. And this is the challenge that each and every blogger in Vietnam has to face not only on a daily basis, but hourly,” the editorial team of the collective news blog Danlambao (Citizen Journalist), whose members work in anonymity, said in an email statement provided to CPJ. “This is the containment method which is used to stop bloggers’ networks from flourishing and expanding.”
Turkey in 2013 remained the world’s leading jailers of journalists. The country continues to promote self-censorship through the widespread use of detentions and criminal prosecutions of journalists. June’s anti-government rallies, commonly known as the Gezi Park protests, were accompanied by a crackdown on media outlets in retaliation for independent or pro-opposition coverage.
CPJ documented numerous attacks on local and international journalists as well as obstruction and detention during the protests in Istanbul, Ankara, and elsewhere in Turkey. The Turkish state media regulator, RTÜK, fined four television stations for their coverage of the demonstrations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly accused the international media of biased coverage, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters.
Numerous critical columnists, editors, and reporters were fired or forced to resign in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to the Turkish Union of Journalists, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit, reflecting the fact that Turkish conglomerates own media outlets and are beholden to the government for the welfare of their other business. “Our problem was imprisonment of journalists. Now our problem is whether or not we will be able to do journalism in the first place, because the ones that have remained in media can’t really do proper reporting, and the ones that were pushed out of media cannot find work,” said a Turkish newspaper journalist who asked for her name to be withheld for fear of reprisal.
Turkey also continues to use broad anti-terror laws to criminalize critical expression and suppress the Kurdish media as well as leftist and nationalist groups. In January, Turkey arrested 11 more journalists on the charge of belonging to a banned terrorist organization.
In August, a court hearing the Ergenekon case–an alleged broad anti-government conspiracy–declared at least 20 journalists guilty of involvement in the plot and doled out lengthy prison sentences. However, most journalists imprisoned in Turkey were kept in pretrial detention, and many had not seen the indictments against them.
Street clashes between Islamists and secularists led to a rapidly deteriorating press freedom climate in Bangladesh, where journalists speaking out on sensitive issues were targeted by all sides. Bloggers increasingly became the victims of violence and government persecution. Blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed in January as he left his office in Dhaka. The following month, another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed for his writing.
An ongoing war crimes tribunal prosecuting genocide, crimes against humanity, and other crimes dating back to the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan inflamed tensions and led to a series of protests across the country. The sentencing of a senior Islamist leader with a life term in February set off nationwide demonstrations known as the “Shahbagh movement,” in which protesters called for the death penalty. Four secular bloggers were arrested in April for allegedly inciting religious tension, and their blogs were shut down. Islamists responded with their own mass protests calling for the bloggers to be put to death. Journalists who have covered the Shahbagh and Islamist protests were harassed and physically attacked. Ekushey Television reporter Nadia Sharmeen was beaten by a crowd while covering an Islamist protest in April.
Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the pro-opposition newspaper Amar Desh, was imprisonedon charges of publishing false and derogatory information and sedition. The Awami League-controlled government also halted the broadcasts of four opposition channels. “There is a lot of misunderstanding in this society,” said Mainul Islam Khan, co-director of the press freedom group the Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism, and Communication. “If you don’t let the other side speak, it creates tension,” he said.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration promised more open and democratic rule in Liberia after years of civil war and dictatorship. The past year, however, has seen a climate of self-censorship take hold. Worrisome developments include the jailing of journalists in civil libel cases and bankrupting of their news organizations by imposing exorbitant damages.
More than a year after signing the Declaration of Table Mountain–a call for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws across Africa–Sirleaf’s administration has done little to advance the cause of decriminalizing defamation. In addition, civil cases brought by government officials have resulted in excessive financial damage awards. In August, a ruling imposing a US$1.5 million fine forced the closure of the leading independent newspaper, FrontPageAfrica, and the imprisonment of its managing editor and publisher, Rodney Sieh, in a case tainted with political undertones. Sieh was jailed indefinitely pending payment, then released on temporary “compassionate leave.” In November, a court formally closed the proceedings against Sieh and FrontPageAfrica after the libel claims were dropped amid an international outcry.
FrontPageAfrica has repeatedly reported on corruption, official misconduct, and human rights abuses, and local journalists told CPJ that the heavy fine was a clear ploy to shut down the critical newspaper. No newspaper has won a libel case since Sirleaf’s election in 2005, according to the Press Union of Liberia. “When officials of government are so keen to run to the courts with issues like these, that are in the public interest, it makes it more difficult for the press to work freely,” said Peter Quaqua, president of the union.
Adding to the tense environment for journalists, a key Sirleaf aide set off a firestorm with an inflammatory speech on World Press Freedom Day. Othello Daniel Warrick, President Sirleaf’s chief security aide, referred to journalists as “terrorists,” and said he would “go after” any journalist who publishes articles critical of the presidency.
While defamation suits and public insults by officials continue to be used to intimidate the press in Ecuador, a new series of legal measures enacted by President Rafael Correa’s administration further degraded the press freedom climate in 2013.
The new Communications Law, approved in June by the Ecuadoran National Assembly to regulate editorial content, gives authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press. The law mandates a state watchdog to monitor media content, and isfilled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties. The recently named superintendent of communication and information, Carlos Ochoa, is known for publicly insulting the press. “The atmosphere is much worse because of the law,” said Monica Almeida, editor at newspaper El Universo. “Before, there was a level of control by the government … but they did not have this legal framework like the Communications Law which allows them to do many things in their favor.”
Earlier in the year, new legislation barring the news media from promoting political candidates “directly or indirectly” in the 90 days before an election led to broad self-censorship among the Ecuadorian media. The law was widely regarded as a way to stifle criticism of Correa in his bid for re-election on February 17, and resulted in scant, shallow reporting on election issues in the press. “There was a serious lack of coverage … it was very difficult to do more in-depth work,” said Almeida.
In September 2011, after two decades of one-party rule in Zambia, the Patriotic Front government led by President Michael Sata promised an era of greater media freedom. Now, however, the mostly state-owned press is under more pressure to self-censor than ever, while the small space that started to open for independent journalists is shrinking.
Zambian leaders have long invoked criminal defamation laws to intimidate journalists, and Sata has been quick to use them, according to freelance journalist Paul Carlucci. The government pursued independent journalists with a series of vague and spurious charges. Authorities accused Zambian journalist Wilson Pondamali, suspected of being linked to the blocked news website Zambian Watchdog, with sedition and insulting the president–charges which eventually shifted to theft of a library book and being in possession of military stores. Two other journalists suspected of links to the Zambian Watchdog, Thomas Zyambo and former journalism lecturer Clayson Hamasaka, also faced a variety of charges, ranging from drug possession to insulting the president, which have shifted as police investigations have evolved. “I am heavily restricted in my movements … I don’t know what they are trying to achieve, other than intimidation,” Hamasaka said. “All of my colleagues are scared. Right now, if you do dare any critical reporting, you will be arrested.”
Zambia Reports, a news website launched in February 2012, was blocked in July. The managing editor told CPJ that the staff believed the government was responsible. Zambia Reports filed a complaint with the Zambian Information & Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) on July 22, but received no reply.
Maya Taal is a freelance writer based in Brussels. She previously worked in communications for CPJ and for Human Rights Watch.