Reporters Without Borders (RWB) was founded in 1985. by four journalists in Montpellier, France. Today, with 7 offices around the world, and 134 correspondents, RSF is at the forefront of the defence and promotion of freedom of information.
Each year, RSF releases the World Press Freedom Index, which assesses the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories. The researchers define press freedom as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.”
The 2022 edition of the Index is a warning. Ten years ago, in 2013, RSF rated 26 countries as a “good situation.” In the 2022 report, that fell to 8 countries. Countries rates “Very serious situation” or “difficult situation” rose from 58 to 70.
Why is this important? Autocrats, particularly those in the job of undermining and overthrowing democracies, depend on control of the media to recruit and agitate the citizenry — and to them maintain the state of agitation. One of the first actions of Nazi Germany on occupying a country was to confiscate the radios and replaced them with German radios that would only receive the German-controlled media. Freedom of the press is one of democracy’s most measurable canaries in the coal mine.
The rise of social media and the ubiquity of Facebook have been powerful factors in sowing discord and forwarding propaganda to create division and agitate violence with little more than a troll farm, some malicious script, and algorithms that repeatedly feed users a singular viewpoint. The RSF report notes that the “news and information chaos” created by social media is the result of “a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.”
“Within democratic societies,” it says, “divisions are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media following the ‘Fox News model’ and the spread of disinformation circuits that are amplified by the way social media functions. At the international level, democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms while waging propaganda wars against democracies. Polarization on these two levels is fueling increased tension.
“Media polarization is feeding and reinforcing internal social divisions in democratic societies such as the United States (42nd), despite president Joe Biden’s election. The increase in social and political tension is being fueled by social media and new opinion media, especially in France (26th). The suppression of independent media is contributing to a sharp polarization in ‘illiberal democracies’ such as Poland (66th), where the authorities have consolidated their control over public broadcasting and their strategy of “re-Polonizing” the privately-owned media.”
Suppression of independent media today does not have to be done by soldiers showing up at the offices of a newspaper to shut them down. Russia, Hungary, Italy and other countries have passed laws labelling media and NGOs that receive support from outside the country “foreign agents,” and restricting their operations. As small, independent media often receive support from supporters of democracy, these laws become and effective tool to discredit the media and justify shuttering their operations and silence their voices.
Russian law, which extends to Non-Profit Organizations that may be promoting facts that are uncomfortable to the regime, restricts “political activities” of such “foreign agencies,” without defining political activity. The law, passed in 2012, restricts access to the organization’s bank accounts, authorizes their being submitted to an unlimited number of unscheduled audits, and subjects all foreign donations larger than 200,000 rubles (approx. 6700 USD) to mandatory monitoring. “Foreign agents” must label all materials distributed in the media, including on the Internet, as product of foreign agents. Failure to comply brings penalties of up to 300,000 rubles and up to two years in prison. The law has the effect of discouraging cooperation between state bodies and civil society, hamstringing independent media’s ability to engage authorities on critical policy issues.
In November, 2021, the law was applied by the Basmanny District Court of Moscow, which fined the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Dmitry Muratov, its editor-in-chief, for allegedly failing to meet disclosure requirements under the country’s foreign agent law — one month after Muratov had been selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Novaya Gazeta was not notified about the court hearing, and the fines were issued without any representative of the newspaper present. On September 5, 2022, Novaya Gazeta was stripped of its media license and banned from operating.
In December, 2022, the Foreign Agents Law law was used to shutter Memorial, a Non-Proift Organization that has been documenting Soviet abuses committed under the the reign of Joseph Stalin since 1989. The organization was shut down less than three weeks after it had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the Philippines a similar “Foreign Agents’ law is being used in a multi-pronged attack against Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her online news site, Rappler. In 2018, and again in 2022, the Philippine government under Rodrigo Duterte ordered that Rappler be shut down for violating foreign ownership rules, in what the New York Times called “the latest blow against press freedom in the country.” Rappler remained operational in defiance of the ruling.
On January 17, 2022, Ressa and Rappler were acquitted of tax evasion charges also related to foreign investment in Rappler. They have appealed the decision on violations of the Foreign Agents law, as well as charges of “cyber libel,” also filed under the Duterte administration. If Ressa’s conviction of cyber libel are upheld she could face more than six years in prison.