Time's 'Person Of The Year' Reminds Us Journalists Face More Widespread Threats Than Ever

From spurious libel cases to men with guns, ancient laws being dusted off to death threats on Twitter – we are seeing new methods all the time
Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

“The mission of journalism has never been needed as much as it is today. That’s why Rapplers have come back day after day with the best hard-hitting stories they can find. They’re stubborn,” Maria Ressa, CEO of the Filipino news site Rappler, likes to say.

Ressa is one of the journalists who are named as TIME magazine’s “person” of the year today.

TIME has named nine journalists as ‘The Guardians’ for this year’s cover. This comes at a time when reporters on all sides of the globe are increasingly targeted with violence and threats just for trying to get the news out.

Ressa, who I met last year at the Perugia International Journalism Festival, is an incredibly strong human being who, along with her news team “the Rapplers”, works under enormous pressure from the Philippine government to stop their work. Despite everything Ressa’s fall back is humour, after all, she says, that’s how you carry on.

Ressa is not alone on the cover. She stands alongside the murdered Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, five murdered journalists from the Capital Gazette (John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and Wendi Winters), and Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are imprisoned in Burma for reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims.

The range of countries represented here shows just how widespread the threat to journalists and journalism now is. We are seeing new methods of silencing reporting developing all the time, from spurious libel cases to men with guns, to ancient laws being dusted off to death threats on Twitter. There’s a whole armoury out there being used in a wide range of countries.

Who would have predicted five years ago that we would be writing about the US president calling the media “the enemy of the people” and the US Senate make a statement that it wasn’t?

Who would have predicted that two investigative journalists would have been murdered in European countries within months of each other?

This is a new world now, where dangerous people learn dangerous things from other parts of the world and feed off each other. For the past five years, we have been carrying stories from inside Mexico about the danger that reporters face there, how journalists are targeted and how writing a news story may mean they end up with a gun at their head. On the other side of the world in Turkey we have seen over 160 journalists imprisoned. In Tanzania, the government has imposed a blogging tax, which is higher than the average salary as yet another method of stopping news officials would like silencing.

In the pages of Index on Censorship magazine over the past five years we have tracked the use of many of these new and dangerous techniques to stop reporters reporting.

Figures from our Mapping Media Freedom project, which covers 43 countries, show reports of 974 attacks on media workers and journalists from December 1 2017 to November 30 2018, of these two were murders, 143 were physical assaults and 146 related to arrests and detentions. We have tracked the rising numbers of assaults on French journalists trying to cover protests and the killing in a car bomb of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Talking about the attempts by the Phillipines’ government to stop them working, this summer Rappler news editor Miriam Grace A Go wrote for Index on Censorship magazine that “the administration may think that it can slow us down with these distractions… but what it didn’t realise was that, by targeting Rappler it had roused a bigger enemy”.

Media organisations both local and international, schools and local civil society groups had all suddenly shown an interest in what was happening to Rappler, she said, and started campaigning on why media freedom was important.

It’s a lesson of some hope in the midst of grave danger.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine. Index on Censorship’s 2019 freedom of expression awards will be held on April 4th, where a journalism fellow will be awarded. Maria Ressa is one of this year’s judges


What's Hot