In recent years, journalists have, with increasing frequency, been portrayed as “enemy of the people”. From America to Egypt, journalists are vilified in ways that go well past what has been considered the norm. So-called “Fake News”, a term running rampant in the headlines of most global publications, is constantly thrown at journalists, resulting in a palpable increase in attacks, whether they comport accusations, imprisonment, or death.
During the 2016 American presidential election, Donald Trump started what he himself famously called an outright, “War on Fake News”. First as a presidential candidate, and then as President of the United States, Mr. Trump was often quoted relentlessly attacking news outlets for spreading “fake news” about his presidential campaign, accusing them of being too critical towards his administration. Spearheaded by Mr. Trump’s aggressive initial approach, more and more governments engaged in similar antics, turning the “war on fake news” into a globally recognized phenomenon.
Although within the United States journalism is not as strictly subject to censure as it might be elsewhere, and the President’s comments are often not even taken seriously, this seemingly harmless American trend has proven to be contagious and outright dangerous for journalists around the globe. For example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi passed laws that give the government the authority to monitor any social media account with 5,000 or more followers in an effort to prevent the spread of “Fake News” against his regime. Amnesty International considers this a legal loophole to prevent print, online and broadcast media from reporting the news freely. Amnesty International, also reported the Turkish government’s oppressive treatment of journalists and media personnel, to the level of being detained without explanation.
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio, has also recently attacked the press for “polluting the political debate every day”, and threatened policy to remove state-run advertising in newspapers. Much like Trump, who attacks news outlets for reporting on his administration, Di Maio employs very similar tactics when blaming the media. Mr. Trump’s attitude towards media outlets, and his aggressive campaign against so-called “Fake News,” have hence inspired a ripple effect on almost every country in the world. With its expansion, the popularization of such hostility towards members of the media has proven to be more dangerous than ever.
A week ago, on October 2nd, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and a U.S. resident entered the Saudi Consulate in Turkey seeking a document required for his wedding but has not been seen since. Turkish officials say they believe Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last week. Although there has been no official confirmation, this would serve as another example of the extent of the repercussions journalists might face for simply voicing their concern towards a regime. The Washington Post reports that a Turkish investigation revealed that a group of about 15 Saudi men traveled to Istanbul within the same timeframe with orders to kill Khashoggi. Saudi officials have, of course, denied any involvement. The Saudi columnist had notoriously criticized the Saudi regime in an interview with Al Jazeera. To further investigate the matter, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had previously held contact with Riyad but did not go so far as to specify the dynamics of the UN’s correspondence with Saudi Arabia regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance.
More and more governments are using the veil of “Fake News” to limit and suppress freedom of speech. However, the reverberation of these offensive policies does not limit themselves to the journalistic sphere. Sadly, they reach as far as regular citizens.
Myanmar government officials imprisoned Reuters Journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12, 2017. At the time of their arrests, they had been working on an investigation on the killing of ten Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The two were sentenced to 7 years in prison for their investigative reporting into what is being considered genocide. Nobel Prize winner and the nation’s public leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has the constitutional right to advocate for a judicial pardon on behalf of the journalists but has remained quiet on the issue. Myanmar, a former military state, is still largely controlled by military generals. Freedom of speech becomes nonexistent, making an understandable example of why local media is afraid to report the news. Wa lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are among the few journalists to be doing investigative work aimed at the genocide of the Rohingya and the military involvement in mass killings of the minority group. Once more, Myanmar, like the governments of other oppressive nations, hence used legal loopholes to punish these journalists and make an example of them.
Bangladesh, Myanmar’s closest neighbor and host of the majority of Rohingya refugees have employed similar legal loopholes to imprison award-winning Bangladeshi photographer and journalist Shahidul Alam. Alam, a critic of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was taken from his home in Dhaka by over 20 policemen in civil cloth after giving an interview to Al Jazeera regarding the massive student protests that had been taking the country by storm. He was charged with spreading false news. Friends and family reported that Alam was unable to walk during his court hearing because of the severe beatings he suffered while in police custody. Much like the other administrations we’ve discussed, the Bangladeshi government made an example of Shahidul Alam, just as they have with many other journalists in the past. Journalists are being persecuted now more than ever, and there seems to be a lack of action from international human rights agencies like the United Nations towards protecting journalists from persecution.
Even though the media sometimes fail to do their job, freedom of the press is what stands between governments misusing their power to oppress the very people they are seemingly elected to protect and serve, such an oppressive and violent silencing of concerned voices should be a massively important consideration for the international community, and the U.N. with it. The war on “Fake News” is a thin veil for attacking democracy’s first line of defense: the free press.