Acknowledge the growing repression of the news media by governments

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, comes at a time when attacks on the independent press are increasing across the world, as authoritarian governments extend their reach and the slogan of “fake news” is used to suppress dissenting opinions.

Ressa has faced multiple criminal charges for how her news website Rappler challenged the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. She and Muratov, whose newspaper Novaya Gazeta has been a persistent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, work under governments that use methods such as repressive legislation and arrests to muzzle critics.

Last year, UNESCO and the Council of Europe published reports lamenting the erosion of media freedom. They noted the increase in police attacks on journalists covering the protests, including intimidation and beatings, and the passage of so-called ‘fake news’ laws in countries from Hungary to Russia. , which can be used to suppress legitimate journalism.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 274 journalists were imprisoned in 2020, the most since 1992, and said “the number of journalists singled out for murder in retaliation for their work more than doubled in 2020”. Prominent journalists murdered in recent years include Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and, this year, Peter de Vries in the Netherlands.

The V-Dem Institute, a Swedish organization that tracks democracy indicators, said in its 2020 report that “media censorship and repression of civil society” were “usually the first step” towards autocracy, and therefore “an early warning signal”.

He reported that in terms of media freedom, “32 countries are down sharply from just 19 just three years ago.”

Governments use outright censorship, harassment, intimidation and the drastic reduction of social media accounts or websites deemed to pose threats to national security. Rights groups say some countries have restricted reporting on COVID-19, as the pandemic has made reliable and independent sources of information more important than ever.

Leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Viktor Orban of Hungary have followed former President Donald Trump’s lead in discrediting the press by labeling unfavorable coverage as “fake news”.

Announcing the award, Nobel Committee Chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said, “Free, independent and factual journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.

Rappler, the Philippine media organization co-founded by Ressa, has established itself as a beacon of independence, with dogged coverage of corruption and the government’s drug war that has killed thousands. Duterte warned that journalists “are not exempt from assassination”. His government pulled the country’s largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, where Ressa once worked, from the air last year.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement that Ressa’s victory was “a victory for press freedom advocates across the Philippines, which remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.” .

The group added that it hoped the award would “send a signal that a free, unstifled and critical press is necessary for a healthy democracy”.

Across Asia, independent news outlets have come under increasing pressure, sometimes being forced to close.

China stifled Hong Kong’s once-free press with a national security law imposed last year. In Myanmar, the military government that took power this year arrested at least 98 journalists, according to the Political Prisoners Assistance Association; five were found guilty of violating a law that makes it an offense to publish or broadcast comments that “instill fear” or spread “false news”, according to Human Rights Watch.

This week, Singapore passed a Banning Foreign Influence on Politics Act, which gives the government the power to require social media platforms to release user data or remove posts deemed anti-government. Last month, the government suspended the license of The Online Citizen, an independent website offering social and political commentary, saying it failed to comply with rules requiring it to declare its sources of funding.

In India, watchdog groups say press freedom has eroded under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has used legal threats and investigations to intimidate the media. This year, the government enacted rules giving it broad power to remove digital content.

Muratov’s Nobel recognition comes amid the most intense crackdown on independent news media in Russia’s post-Soviet history.

This year, the Kremlin has made aggressive use of a law allowing it to designate individuals and groups as “foreign agents,” forcing news outlets and dissident groups to pay fines, publish onerous disclosure requirements and disclaimers, or even close their doors. Major Russian-language news outlets like Meduza, TV Rain and Proekt have been declared “foreign agents” or outright banned in recent months, and investigative journalists have been forced into exile.

Editor-in-chief of Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, one of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, speaks to reporters in Moscow on Friday. | Reuters

Just hours after the peace prize was announced, the government applied the tag to nine activists and journalists, including prominent Russian-language correspondents from the BBC and US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. United.

“Parliament does not represent all the people, it does not represent the minority with an alternative point of view,” Muratov said outside his newspaper’s offices in Moscow on Friday. “The media represents them, and that’s exactly why, I believe, these attacks on the Russian press are taking place.”

Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta is the largest independent media outlet that has not been declared a foreign agent. With extensive coverage of sensitive topics like rights abuses in the Russian republic of Chechnya and torture in prisons, the newspaper has many enemies.

Unlike many independent journalists, Muratov sought to find ways to engage with the Kremlin. He attended a meeting of Russian editors with Putin this year, and the Kremlin’s chief spokesman congratulated him on Friday.

But Muratov grew increasingly pessimistic about the future of political freedoms in Russia, where he said the powerful Federal Security Service – the main successor agency to the KGB – took over the management of politics interior.

Russian analysts and journalists speculated that it would only be a matter of time before Novaya Gazeta would be banned or forced to shut down. But some critics were quick to say on Friday that the Nobel laureate could serve the Kremlin by allowing Putin to point the finger at Novaya Gazeta as proof that free speech in Russia still exists.

— ROGER COHEN, SUI-LEE WEE and ANTON TROIANOVSKI

Six newspaper journalists lost their lives on the job

During President Vladimir Putin’s tenure, six reporters from Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that Dmitry Muratov co-founded in 1993, were killed for their work. The best known was Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who was shot and killed on October 7, 2006.

Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of Putin and his policies in the Chechnya war, was shot dead in the elevator of her building in Moscow. While a court convicted several men of carrying out the assassination, authorities have left unanswered the question of who masterminded it. Putin, speaking shortly after her death, denied any role, saying Politkovskaya’s death had created a bigger problem for Russia due to international criticism than her life and work as an investigative journalist.

Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has become Russia’s most prominent independent newspaper for social and political affairs. The newspaper has three main owners: the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who used the proceeds of his Nobel Peace Prize to fund the business; Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent turned banker and critic of the rise of a new police state; and the newspaper staff, who own shares.

In one of the first murders, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist and MP, died of a mysterious and painful disease that caused the epidermis, or top layer of skin, to peel off in a rare symptom caused by certain drug allergies, but which the Novaya Gazeta newspaper concluded in its own investigation was poisoning.

Shchekochikhin fell ill days before planning to travel to the United States to share information with US law enforcement on suspicion of corruption and money laundering at a furniture import business, the Three Whales, linked to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, touch a nerve over a major trend of security services moving into business. His autopsy results remain classified.

In 2009, Russian nationalists shot and killed another journalist for the paper, Anastasia Boburova, on a sidewalk in the capital, along with a human rights lawyer.

In another high-profile murder in 2009, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was abducted in the Chechen capital of Grozny and later killed. Estemirova cooperated with Novaya Gazeta to catalog killings, torture and kidnappings in Chechnya and linked them to the region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Estemirova continued this work even after the death of Politkovskaya in 2006, with whom she had started her collaboration with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

In recent years, the newspaper’s journalists have published articles investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Their main war reporter, Pavel Kanygin, was abducted and beaten by separatists, but nevertheless returned for on-the-spot reporting as part of the newspaper’s investigation into the shooting down of a civilian airliner in the over Ukraine in 2014.

—ANDREW E. KRAMER

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