Azra* has been a journalist in Turkey for 25 years. She has witnessed her country’s press freedoms fall away under the acceleration of censorship, and it has left her scared.
Reporters have increasingly found themselves in court facing criminal charges for their stories. For Azra, her prosecution came with a choice that many before have also faced. Stop what you are doing or change the way you report.
As a result, she has gone underground. “This job is the main thing in my life, so I could never fully give it up,” she says. “But I miss being a correspondent and writing the headlines of Turkey.”
Turkey is one of many countries across the world who are increasingly prosecuting and detaining journalists. Reporters Without Borders observed record levels of journalists detained in 2021, with 488 people, including 60 women, currently held in detention due to their work.
The 20 per cent surge in detainments over the past 12 months has risen in tandem with a global decline in democratic freedoms. Amy Slipowitz co-writes ‘Freedom in the World’, an annual report assessing political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries. She explains: “What we found is that between 2005 and 2020, there has been a consecutive decline in global freedom, and press freedoms have experienced the most drastic overall decline.”
According to the report’s findings, media freedoms are now 13 per cent lower than they were in 2005. In the Middle East, these freedoms have worsened at an alarming rate over the past decade. “The average score for media freedoms has declined by 25 per cent, which is massive,” says Amy.
– Graph showing ‘freedom levels’ of Middle East countries using Freedom House scores
Saudi Arabia and Egypt hold the highest number of journalists in prison, second only to China. In August 2021, Ali Aboluhom, a Yemeni journalist based in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 15 years in prison for tweets that authorities said were guilty of spreading “ideas of apostasy, atheism and blasphemy.” It marked one of the highest prison sentences in the world for a journalist last year.
Tactics to restrict press freedoms are varied and fast changing as journalists seek alternative ways to ensure critical news reaches audiences. Social media has become an increasingly vital tool for journalists amid government closures and take-overs of media outlets.
However, over recent years, laws directly targeting journalists on social media have emerged. “The common point between several countries in the Middle East is the use of laws related to “fake news” or “cybercrime” in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism,” says Sabrina Beunnoui, Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) head of Middle East.
“It is a systematic tool in Egypt where almost all the journalists and bloggers are currently detained under charges such as ‘spreading false information’ or ‘belonging to a forbidden group’. The cybercrime accusation is mostly used in Syria and Lebanon when it comes to investigating corruption issues or alleged defamation on the Internet,” says Sabrina. “It is definitely used to silence journalists and bloggers and limit their freedom to inform.”
As Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s researcher on Lebanon, reflects: “The laws are not in favour of freedom of expression. Instead they protect the status of people in office.”
“In 2019, we witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on freedoms of expression in Lebanon. Different security agencies were summoning journalists and activists simply for expressing something on their social media. It used to be rare for a journalist to be summoned for criticising the president, but a new precedent has been set and now, it has become the norm.”
As the clamp down against press freedoms spreads, journalists are increasingly practising self-censorship. “Unfortunately, in many countries with a strong power and an authoritarian government like Egypt, Syria or Saudi Arabia, journalists and bloggers have given up the idea of doing their job and left the true concept of journalism behind,” explains RSF’s Sabrina. “They remain completely silent, which is a victory for the authorities in place.”
For Turkish journalist Azra, self-censorship practises are a necessary form of protection, “My reporting became less aggressive because of the risks. I’ve seen many colleagues stepping back due to the risk of imprisonment. We are in crisis.”
It has left her fearful for the future of journalism;
Young reporters are now simply accepting censorship without questioning it. A generation of journalists are being trained to think censorship is normal and adopting it as a precondition.
In order to work, many journalists have been forced into exile. Kurdish reporter Kaveh Ghoreishi lived and worked in Iraqi Kurdistan for six years but left in 2011 due to the risks involved. Now based in Germany, his reporting faces numerous issues. “As a diaspora journalist, I deal with many restrictions. The most important one is the lack of access to the geography to which my work is directly related. Especially since we have to be in constant contact with those countries to document our activities.”
He adds: “I am being prosecuted for my activities in Iran, and I am not able to travel safely to Kurdish areas due to Iran’s influence in Iraq. As a Kurdish journalist in Iran, I am potentially at risk of the death penalty.”
Restrictions and risks for journalists are set to worsen, most recently highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic. RSF noted that press freedoms during this time experienced a “dramatic deterioration” as numerous governments tightened controls over news coverage and ramped up trials of journalists.
Despite this, there is hope for the future of journalism. As Azra and Kaveh both show, while they have been forced to adapt, they continue to report. “There might be lots of restrictions but new and innovative ways to develop content are emerging,” says Freedom House’s Amy. “People will always find a way to share the truth.”
*Name changed to protect identity