As the power of traditional media wanes, violence and repression against reporters grows and terror groups wage war by social media.
Last month, as part of a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, I met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss the country’s press freedom crisis. I have been in many similar meetings with heads of state, and they tend to follow a formula. The president or prime minister declares a deep and abiding commitment to press freedom and then we argue about the ways in which the country has failed to uphold these principles. Often, the head of state contrasts the reckless and irresponsible domestic media with the highly professional international media to explain why a more aggressive posture is necessary.
But Erdoğan did not follow the script. | By Joel Simon, for The Guardian
From the outset he went on the offensive, striking a combative posture and attacking media coverage as biased, intrusive, and tendentious. The chief target of his wrath was not the local media – although he expressed plenty of disdain for them – but the New York Times and CNN International. He declared that he would never tolerate insults and said that he is “increasingly against the internet”.
If this is how Erdoğan behaves with a group of international journalists, one can only imagine what he says in private. And the concern is not merely for the way in which these attitudes are translated into media policies in Turkey, a country that until recently was the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Rather it is symptomatic of a shift in the relationship between the media and those they cover, a shift with deadly consequences for journalists around the world.
The information monopoly that journalists exercised for most of the past century has been their source of power and therefore safety. But technology has changed the equation. Today, you don’t need a traditional media organisation to reach a mass audience and journalists are no longer respected, feared, or valued. The result has been an increase in violence and repression against reporters on a scale never before documented.
In fact, according to data compiled by CPJ, the last two years has been the most deadly and dangerous period for journalists in recent history. Almost 150 journalists were killed during this period, and more than 200 journalists were in jail around the world at the end of each year.
Governments of all stripes have employed a variety of tactics to marginalise, isolate, or disrupt the work of the media. In places like Turkey and Ethiopia, journalists are jailed on anti-terror charges based on their critical coverage. In Russia and Hungary, media organisations face punitive tax audits, or crippling libel fines. In Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, governments simply bypass traditional news outlets, relying instead on an alternative media structure funded by and loyal to the government.
International correspondents, once feted and wooed, are ignored and sometimes targeted in orchestrated smear campaigns. In Egypt three journalists from al-Jazeera are languishing in jail, sentenced to long prison terms on anti-terror charges. In Turkey, New York Times correspondent Ceylan Yeginsu was vilified and threatened after Erdoğan publicly objected to a photo used to accompany a story on recruitment by Islamic State (Isis).
Governments take these actions because they believe that the international media no longer shapes global opinion and that the domestic media no longer sets the national political agenda in much of the world. This assessment is essentially correct. The media environment is much more diverse and diffuse, and governments have benefited tremendously from their ability to use social media and other forms of technology to disseminate information directly to the public. Large media companies have also been weakened financially as audiences fragment, circulation and viewing numbers plummet, and advertising moves online.
If these trends are dangerous in repressive societies, they are deadly when it comes to non-state actors. Journalists who covered war and conflict over the past few decades can recall instances in which they talked their way out of dicey situations by arguing that if militants killed or kidnapped them there would be no one to tell their story. Unfortunately, no one believes that any more. Militant groups have their own networks, and their own way of using technology to deliver information to the public. Journalists are dispensable.
To understand why, just look at the evolution of al-Qaida’s media strategy. Osama bin Laden once gave interviews to western journalists such as Jon Miller and Peter Bergen. After the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida relied on video and audio tapes which it gave to al-Jazeera to broadcast. During the Iraq war, it developed a network of Jihadi media houses and websites to disseminate its propaganda. Today, Isis, an al-Qaida offshoot, uses social media with chilling effectiveness to disseminate propaganda in which journalists are not a conduit for information but props in bloody montages intended to reinforce a message of terror.
This trend is not confined to the Islamist militants. In fact, Mexican drug cartels employ a similar strategy. They routinely disseminate grisly execution videos over social media, intending to terrorise their rivals and the nation at large. In vast areas of the country, media organisations operate under their sway, reporting only the news that the cartels see fit to print. Those journalists who dare challenge the cartels’ information hegemony face death. With more than 50 journalists killed in the past seven years, Mexico has one of the highest media murder rates in the world. In October, traffickers reportedly captured a citizen journalist who had used Twitter to report on Reynoso, a border city under siege. They took over her account and sent out a final tweet – “my life has come to an end” – followed by a photo of her dead body.
These trends, shaped by technology, are powerful and not easily reversible. The irony, of course, is that as repressive and violent forces increase their participation in the global news ecosystem, the need for independent voices and eyewitness documentation becomes even more acute. The challenge in making the world safer for journalists begins with a recognition that the power dynamic has changed. We may be living in the information age, but those on the frontlines actually providing the news that we need to understand global events have never been more vulnerable, more isolated, and more alone.