Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. 2020 has been a grim year for global press freedom. Journalists have been routinely targeted, harassed, attacked, and even killed for doing their jobs, whether they've been covering government abuse uprisings against police violence, or the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a record number of journalists have been jailed this year, at least 274 despite COVID-19 risks. Here to discuss the state of press freedom is Robert Mahoney deputy executive director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Robert, welcome to the show.
Robert Mahoney: Hello.
Tanzina: The state of press freedoms before the pandemic, were they better or worse?
Robert: No, press freedom has been on the decline globally for the last five years. The pandemic has worsened and accelerated the trend of governments throwing journalists behind bars in order to shut them up.
Tanzina: What are some of the changes that you've seen since the pandemic for press freedom globally?
Robert: Well, we've seen a record here of 274 journalists imprisoned this year. That's the highest number in nearly 30 years that the Committee to Protect Journalists has been documenting these violations against journalists. The number of journalists that has been imprisoned on flimsy charges, because they tried to report on the pandemic, on the fact that many governments were unprepared to fight the pandemic, and they wanted to control news about that, therefore, they either intimidated or jailed journalists.
Some of the countries where this has happened has been China, where the pandemic erupted in the first place. That is still the world's leading jailer of journalists. It's not just China. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, lots of other countries have really gone out of their way this past year to crack down on the press.
Tanzina: What are some of the threats look like? We talked a little bit about it in the introduction, but what specifically are we talking about? There are journalists who are being imprisoned, journalists have also been killed?
Robert: Yes, many journalists have been killed. The issue of imprisonment is one that's really important for us because COVID is running rampant through a lot of prisons around the world. Some of the conditions in which journalists are held are really unsanitary. We have had at least two journalists who have died of COVID-19, which they contracted whilst in prison. There's a real moral imperative to release Journalists, political activists, and political prisoners, because keeping them locked up, is endangering their health as well as depriving them of their liberty.
All this is happening at a time when we, citizens, the public need accurate and timely information about the pandemic about what it's doing to our health. In lots of countries where the virus is running rampant, the governments have quashed all kinds of independent reporting, choking off the flow of information to the public.
Tanzina: What is the fear specifically? I mean, and I want to make sure that we're addressing the fact that our own federal government here in the United States has repeatedly, at least President Trump has said that this is a hoax, that COVID-19 isn't real, or that it's something that can easily be remedied. We're not unique here, but I'm curious internationally, what is the fear that governments have of accurate reporting around COVID-19?
Robert: The fact that it shows that they are weak and dysfunctional. A lot of these dictatorships and authoritarian countries project the image of strength, and being able to deal with threats, most of them are fighting uprisings internally or politically. They talk about a war on terror. Now, they're fighting an unseen enemy, which is a virus. They downplay the virus, they dismiss it as flu.
They fake the numbers, they make sure that the public gets to hear only what the government wants to hear, and they crackdown on journalists. They also crackdown on doctors and nurses that provide information to journalists, or themselves go directly to the public over social media. They're desperate to keep the truth bottled up because it makes them look weak and inefficient.
Tanzina: Robert, other than COVID-19 itself, what are some of the other threats to press freedom around the world this year specifically thinking about a lot of the social justice uprisings that we've seen here in the United States and abroad?
Robert: Yes, well, the social of justice uprisings, the protests, and the way that the authorities here in the US reacted, sends a terrible signal to dictators around the world that this is the way to deal with social protest. We have partnered with other organizations here in the US to track all the violations of press freedom and attacks on journalists over the past year in the States. We're looking at nearly 1,000 incidents in 79 cities across the US of journalists being attacked or impeded from doing their work.
More than 300 journalists have been assaulted this year in the US, and the bulk of those assaults have come from law enforcement. We have no journalists in jail in the US, which is good, but more than 100 were arrested and criminally charged this year just for doing the jobs. At the last count, we still have 12 journalists facing charges. All this in a country, which used to set an example to many countries in the world about how to deal with a free press and how to enable the press to do its job in a democracy. We've been setting an awful example, not just this year, but over the last few years.
Tanzina: Robert, I'd also like to talk a little bit about journalists here in the United States and whether or not-- I mean, there were some cases, I believe, where journalists were apprehended covering protests, American journalists in particular. Give us a sense of the safety and ability that journalists here in the United States have had or not had during President Trump's administration more broadly?
Robert: Well, journalists are covering whether it's demonstrations or just trying to do the job. I've had two threats this year in the US, one has come from the fear of being arrested or assaulted mainly by law enforcement. The other one is staying safe and not contracting the virus. Journalists have adapted pretty quickly to both. A lot of journalists covering the protest didn't have sufficient protective equipment to be able to deal with being assaulted or gassed or sprayed. They've been a lot of incidents where journalists have been injured. We had one unfortunate journalist who lost an eye during a protest earlier in the year.
It's been a tough year for for for journalists but as I said, they've adapted pretty quickly. That's exactly what we expect them to be able to do to bring us the news. Nearly 1,000 incidents of attacks on journalists in cities across the US and more than 300 journalists assaulted. These are unprecedented numbers in modern times. I think that the press deserves to be able to do its work here. The rhetoric that we've seen deployed against journalists, they've been called scum and enemies of the people by President Trump, we hope that that stops and that journalists can go about doing their reporting without being targeted by the head of state.
Tanzina: Robert, it's more than the head of state, I think at this point. I've seen people who are really buying into conspiracy theories right now and saying they distrust all of the "mainstream media". The President's rhetoric, and some of these conspiracy groups that have emerged over the course of his tenure, have really had an effect on how average American citizens think about the media as well. What do journalists do there when people just say, "We don't trust you?" At least it feels like it's a growing number of people. I think that makes us even less safe in doing our jobs.
Robert: Yes, that's part of that as part of a strategy where you undermine trust in the media so that no one will believe anything that you say. It's a well-known political ploy. It's very, very dangerous for press freedom. Because if you undermine the credibility of the media, no matter how much factual reporting you do, no matter how many scripts you have, if people don't believe you, it doesn't matter.
I think that the example has to come from the top, to begin with. I think, if leadership models the behavior that they would like to see in a free democracy, whether you have a functioning press, then I think things will improve not just here, but but overseas.
At the Committee to Protect Journalists we've put forward some proposals for the incoming Biden administration which we hope will repair some of the damage which has been done over the past four years. We would love President-elect Biden to make a very strong declaration when he takes office of how his administration will support press freedom and value the work of the press in a democracy, not just here, but around the world, so that the US will walk the walk as well as talk the talk when it comes to saying we have a free press and we value First Amendment values.
Then I would love for that administration to appoint a special envoy for press freedom. It would be for a few years, but that person would be able to speak out on press matters, condemn attacks on journalists, and work to restore some of the confidence that we need in the press. If we can't believe an independent media as citizens, then we are open to more conspiracy theories and bad actors pumping misinformation and lies into our information world and just leaves us confused and afraid.
Tanzina Vega: As a journalist myself, Robert, I have to say I agree with you and I hope that we can get on a better path. Robert Mahoney is the deputy executive director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Robert, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert: Thank you so much and thank you for your interest in this really important subject.
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