In Depth

Is press freedom under attack?

Case of Northern Ireland journalists arrested after reporting on police corruption adds to global fears about media repression

The issuing of warrants used to arrest two Belfast journalists has been criticised as “inappropriate” by the most senior judge in Northern Ireland, in a case that has highlighted growing concerns about threats to press freedom worldwide.

Northern Irish police raided the homes and offices of award-winning journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog report.

The unredacted document “was obtained by the journalists as part of their investigation into the murders of six Catholic men by masked gunmen in a pub in Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994”, reports The Guardian. Birney and McCaffrey’s work “named alleged murderers and highlighted collusion between the police and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)”, and was used in the 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned, directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney, the newspaper adds.

No one has been convicted of the murders, despite claims that police know the killers’ identities.

Concluding a judicial review into the journalists’ arrests, Lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan, along with two other high court judges, this week stated that “we are minded to quash the warrants on the basis that they were inappropriate, whatever the other arguments”.

Lawyers for Birney and McCaffrey had told Belfast High Court that their clients had been targeted in “the kind of operation more associated with a police state than with a liberal democracy”, reports The Irish News.

The case is a “potential embarrassment” to the British government “at a time when Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has asked Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer, to head a review into threats to media freedom around the world”, says The Times.

The review will include a ministerial conference hosted by the UK and Canada in London in July that is intended to draw attention to such attacks on journalists.

Following her appointment, Clooney said: “It has never been more dangerous to report the news. Targeting journalists undermines democracy and impedes our ability to hold the powerful to account and it allows countless human rights abuses to take place in the dark. Those with a pen in their hand should not feel a noose round their neck.”

So is press freedom under attack? The Week looks at the evidence.

‘Climate of impunity’

Last year is reported to have been the deadliest yet for journalists across the globe, with 99 killed, 348 detained and 80 taken hostage by non-state groups.

Although the majority of incidents occurred outside the Continent, the attacks have “started to spread to Europe, including Malta and Eastern Europe”, says The Guardian.

Indeed, the latest annual report to the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, published in February, warned that a “climate of impunity” has taken hold in parts of Europe.

In Malta, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating Maltese money laundering and corruption when she was killed by a car bomb near her home in October 2017.

Three men charged with her murder have still not faced trial and could be released in two months, according to Press Gazette. The Council of Europe report listed “serious concerns” about the investigation into her murder and said that “weaknesses of the rule of law in general and the criminal justice system in particular” were directly relevant to worries about the authorities’ response.

In Slovakia, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were shot dead after reporting on “corruption, tax fraud and links between high-ranking Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia”, says Euronews. In September last year, police charged four suspects in relation to the murder, with a trial due to be held later this year.

Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) claims that one of the suspects, a woman named Alena Zs, worked for a Slovak businessman who placed Kuciak under investigation because he was taking too much interest in his affairs.

Other interventions against press in Europe have been more discreet. Recently, the French government has interviewed eight journalists over the case of presidential bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who beat up a protester while dressed as a police officer.

“Journalists who make a habit of poking their noses into police and judicial affairs are more likely than their colleagues to be called in for a little talk,” legal specialist Renaud Le Gunehec told French newspaper Le Monde.

The case of Julian Assange

Worries about press freedom have been fuelled by the high-profile case of Julian Assange, who this month was indicted on 17 new counts of violating the US Espionage Act for receiving and publishing information from former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Assange’s supporters note that his WikiLeaks website revealed details of alleged war crimes in places including Afghanistan and Iraq “that were unlikely to have been exposed otherwise”, says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at Washington D.C.’s George Washington University, in an article for the BBC.

“If it was a crime for Assange to receive and publish such information, much of the journalism in the US would become a de facto criminal enterprise,” Turley argues.

However, John Demers, who leads the US Justice Department’s National Security Division, insists there is a clear distinction between Assange and traditional media outlets.

“Some say that Assange is a journalist, and that he should be immune from prosecution for these actions. The department takes serious the role of journalists in our democracy,” Demers said. “It is not and has never been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”

“Unfortunately, that distinction doesn’t matter in the eyes of the Espionage Act”, says Wired’s Brian Barrett. “A successful prosecution of Assange would establish a precedent that publishing sensitive national security materials is a crime, full stop.” 

Former Department of Justice spokesperson Matthew Miller told Wired that the Barack Obama administration had chosen not to charge Assange for that reason.

“The department ultimately made the decision that it wasn’t appropriate to charge Assange for publishing classified information,” Miller said. “Not because he’s a journalist - we didn’t believe he was - but that the same legal theories you would apply to him could be used against a reporter for any major media outlet. That was the driving force.” 

A global trend

Experts say the intrusions on media freedom in Europe are part of a global trend. Panelists from Asia at the recent Global Media Forum “agreed that even democratically elected governments are imposing curbs on media as the space for dissent is increasingly shrinking in Asia”, reports Deutsche Welle (DW).

In the case of India, “progressive journalists are alarmed” by the resounding victory of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election, says the German newspaper. “They fear that the premier would now try to tighten his administration’s grip on the South Asian country's media even more,” DW adds.

Pakistani journalist Shahzeb Jillani told the panel that press freedom is also being threatened in his country. “In the past two years, Pakistan has witnessed a creeping coup. If you analyse our media, you will find it quite free actually. You can criticise politicians and even the prime minister, but you can’t say a word against the army,” Jillani said.

But Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh, said that some of the blame for the increasing intrusion into press freedom lay at the door of journalists themselves.

“Trump dubbed mainstream media the ‘enemy of the people’. We need to analyse what has happened. Journalists have lost their credibility because they have forgotten about their readers and viewers. We give more importance to advertisers now,” Anam concluded.


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