LAGOS — The death a year ago of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist who worked for Al Jazeera, is a stark reminder of the dangers reporters face operating on the front lines of conflicts. Despite wearing a press vest, the 51-year old journalist was shot in the head while covering an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank in May 2022.
Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter, was detained by the Russian government on March 30, 2023, on espionage charges while reporting in Yekaterinburg, east of Moscow. The United States and Gershkovich’s employer have rejected the charges against him. Last week, PassBlue wrote that Will Mauldin, a Gershkovich colleague, was asked by United Nations security officials to remove a button saying “Free Evan” if he wanted to stay in the guest section of the Security Council chamber during a Russian-led meeting. (He obliged.)
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, the growing threats to journalists is a deep reminder that their lives can be at stake no matter where they work and that prosecution for their deaths is minimal.
The ongoing invasion by Russia in Ukraine that began in February 2022 has resulted in a significant number of attacks on journalists, making it a notable cause of violence against reporters globally in the last year. Despite journalists’ efforts to provide the public with up-to-date news, reporters and other media personnel working on the front lines are contending with more assaults and even death while carrying out their duties.
Ihor Hundeko, a local freelance photojournalist and documentarian in Kharkiv, was covering the Russia-Ukraine war on his Facebook page in February 2022 when he went missing. His body was later found, and it is believed he was killed while trying to record the conflict. Similarly, Oksana Baulina, a Russian journalist with an independent Latvian investigative news site called The Insider, was killed in March 2022 while covering the destruction of a shopping center in Kyiv. Baulina and another civilian were killed in the incident, which was caused by 120-millimeter artillery shells fired by Russian forces.
Women journalists are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence and harassment. On social media, they are routinely subjected to warnings of rape and death if they pursue certain lines of reporting. The death of Abu Akleh underscores the need for greater protections for journalists, including measures to ensure their safety while they do their job.
PassBlue spoke with journalists from 10 countries on press freedom for World Press Freedom Day, which was established by the UN General Assembly in 1993. From Ukraine to the Americas, the journalists shared the hurdles they must surmount every day while doing their jobs. The interviews have been edited for clarity and ordered alphabetically. While PassBlue appreciates the annual global acknowledgment that journalists contend with increasing threats — in many forms — as they do their work, our own journalists have faced various styles of subtle retaliation or negative overt reactions from officials in the wider UN community for our critical, fact-based reporting. These reactions have not stopped us from publishing our investigations, analyses, breaking news and scoops. — DAMILOLA BANJO
Ope Adetayo, Nigerian journalist
Press and freedom do not exist in the same sentence in Nigeria because we have the political and social culture of silencing and bullying the press. Nigeria is one of those places where if you tell people you are a journalist, the first reaction is to express sympathy, to acknowledge your condition. We can only turn this around if we start seeing the press as an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient of a free society.
Dmitry Anopchenko, Ukrainian journalist
The distribution of information in Ukraine is limited now. Both technically, as there is only one national channel in the country (yes, it’s the same “picture” on every “button,” with six leading national broadcasters making common programming 24/7), and practically, with some limits on what and how the news can be reported. From the beginning of the war, questions began to arise: what if a journalist reports something and fulfills his duties, but it will negatively affect the course of hostilities, giving information to the enemy? What if a journalist criticizes something, but it will weaken the morale of the people and the soldiers on the frontline? I will give you specific examples:
What if we report about the shelling and its consequences, but the Russian military, who carried out this shelling, based on the received TV picture or photographs, will be able to adjust the fire and shoot more efficiently? (It happened in the past.) What if we report about the dispatch of Western military aid, but thanks to the message, the route of this aid can be traced? What if we write about corruption — the function of a journalist — but it will lower morale in the country because it will make people doubt the authorities and their actions? Under these conditions, there are restrictions on freedom of speech, mandated by the state and by journalists, using self-restraint, because you begin to understand that any words you say can be costly. A famous Ukrainian journalist reported from a training camp for the Ukrainian army and foreign volunteers. It was an amazing story until the next day, when the Russian army sent rockets to the location, seemingly because they saw the reporting. So every day is a tough choice — what you can say and the consequences. This is why freedom of speech is limited now, but Ukraine cannot be judged by normal standards until the end of the war.
Remmy Bahati, Ugandan journalist
On World Press Freedom Day, we are reminded of the critical role that journalists play in keeping the world informed and holding those in power accountable. In Uganda, practicing journalism can be incredibly challenging, with restrictions on freedom of speech and press freedom. Journalists face harassment, intimidation and even physical violence for reporting on sensitive issues or criticizing those in power. Personally, I have been abused and retaliated against by those in power for my journalism. Despite these challenges, brave journalists in Uganda continue to fight for the truth and to keep the public informed, showing the importance of a free and independent press in any society. Governments should promote open, free press, and journalists should be allowed to report on critical issues without fear of retaliation.
Daniel Bland, journalist working in Brazil and the United States
I represent the Americas, so I will give you two visions. Up north in the United States, freedom of the press is quite strong as it falls in line with the First Amendment, which includes freedom of speech. Freedom must go hand in hand with responsibility, however, so be careful how freely you speak as it could bring forth negative repercussions. Down south in Brazil, press freedom is a bit less free. Although having a culture that is more focused on holding your tongue to not offend others may seem good, it reduces overall freedom.
Dounard Bondo, Liberian journalist
Over the last five years, there have been improvements in press freedom in Liberia, but the country is still a long way from achieving total press freedom. In the last five years, a law on access to information has been adopted, and in 2019, the press law which eliminated the crimes of defamation of the head of state and sedition came into force. In practice, the press is occasionally harassed by government officials because of their political opinions and reporting. The fear of losing money from government advertising, which is the largest source of revenue for most media houses, also leads to self-censorship. Lastly, a lot of media houses do not report on cases on homosexuality or female genital mutilation through a human-right lens due to societal backlash or cultural perspectives on the issues. To achieve true press freedom, there needs to be the political will to do so, as the government has the ultimate responsibility and power to prevent or punish attacks against the press. The press also has to figure out how to make money independent of government advertising; journalists’ salaries also need to be increased to foster press independence. Lastly, journalists need increased access to training on how to properly report on sensitive topics.
Rhys Everquill, British journalist
Press freedom is an important part of democracy and it must be protected. Even in countries like the UK, media pluralism is threatened, with only three companies dominating the national newspaper market. Legislation such as the National Security Bill seeks to wrongfully charge journalists for reporting in the public interest. The unresolved case of the Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange and the proliferation of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) make London the defamation capital of the world.
María Luz Nóchez, Salvadoran journalist
Freedom of the press has been rapidly deteriorating since [President] Nayib Bukele took office in 2019. The official party members claim in Congress that [freedom of the press] is not endangered because there are no dead or imprisoned journalists and that the greatest evidence is that they haven’t closed a single news outlet that is critical to the government. At the same time, they have publicly admitted that they’re at war with the independent media and accuse them of wanting to harm the government’s reputation. This has been accompanied by the shuttering of all transparency and accountability mechanisms, gravely threatening Salvadorans’ right to be informed while considerable public resources are allotted to disseminating propaganda and disinformation. On behalf of my newsroom, El Faro, I can say that we have faced physical surveillance and threats, Pegasus spyware attacks, harassment of advertisers and defamation from public officials and ruling-party legislators. The president even used state television and radio to falsely accuse us of money laundering. But above all, we are responding to and appealing multiple Treasury ministry audits and fabricated criminal accusations in different administrative forums and courtrooms despite that in El Salvador there is no longer a separation of powers. What can be done? Restoration of the division of powers is a must as well as guaranteeing access to public information; harassment and spying on journalists has to end. Basically bringing back democracy.
Catherine Offord, journalist in Spain
Journalists working with US media outlets enjoy a high level of press freedom compared to many other regions of the world. However, that doesn’t mean we’re not subjected to attempts at intimidation from people and organizations that wish to silence certain parts of the press. SLAPP suits [Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation] — and the utter lack of effective legislation in many states to prevent them — are particularly concerning. While large outlets may have the backing and resources to face down these kinds of attacks, smaller outlets can more easily be persuaded to avoid covering controversial topics in the future.
Maurice Oniang’o, Kenyan journalist
The past year has been challenging for journalists and the media in Kenya. We have witnessed an increase in attacks both verbal and physical against journalists, from politicians, state security and even the public. The most recent incidents were in March, during protests led by opposition leaders. The government tried to stop media from broadcasting the protests and even sent warnings of shutting down some mainstream TV stations because they had broadcast the events. However, they rescinded the statement/warning after the media and civil society condemned it. When politicians use their platforms to call the media “corrupt,” they not only erode the public’s trust in media but also incite the public to attack journalists when they are carrying out their assignments. We need to see condemnation and prosecution on anyone who attacks the media or journalists, and politicians should refrain from making statements that undermine the work of journalists or put them in danger. Police should also respect journalists and allow them to carry out their assignments. Treating journalists and media as criminals does no good to the country.
Kourosh Ziabari, Iranian journalist
Iran has long suffered from a conundrum of free speech. There are no legal guardrails to protect press freedom, and journalists, despite doing a critical job keeping the public informed and educated, are among the most vulnerable members of Iranian society. The authorities have long internalized the practice of retribution against journalists who expose corruption and maladministration rather than addressing the root causes of what perpetuates corruption and flawed statecraft. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the arrests of 95 journalists since the eruption of nationwide protests in September 2022, with 72 released on bail. We’ve seen a steep, cataclysmic decline of press freedom since the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising started after the death in police custody of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini. Sadly, Iran is now one of the worst jailers of journalists and most-unsafe environments to practice journalism.
The fact that there is little tolerance for critical, investigative journalism coupled with the government’s intrusive measures to restrict social media and Internet access expose the cementing of authoritarian attitudes in a country with a remarkably young, educated population eager to break from the international isolation it has been trapped in. Local reporters navigate a constellation of restrictions to churn out the information the public needs to be aware of. I personally don’t see any improvement in sight. The state perceives the media as its adversary and has never acknowledged that a free press is essential to the steady functioning of the bureaucracy and administrative bodies, providing the oversight that enables their work to be transparent and accountable. It is no wonder that in most international indices of corruption perception, human development and democratic credentials, Iran is one of the worst-performing nations.
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.