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Press freedom is under attack


May 3rd 2022  |  Budapest, Hong Kong, Mumbai and St Petersburg

Olga Rudenko has a litany of worries as editor of the Kyiv Independent, an online newspaper in Ukraine. Since the Russian army invaded in February, more than 20 journalists have been killed. Throwing aside international conventions, the Russians are targeting reporters. Insurance for local correspondents is prohibitively expensive, and the paper is struggling to get hold of helmets, satellite phones and bulletproof vests. “We are being invaded by people who hate journalists,” she says.

It’s a triumph that Ms Rudenko and her team are working at all. Last year, they were worrying about a threat less dramatic than Russian bombs, but still insidious: a reorganisation of the paper which they believed would undermine their editorial independence. The Kyiv Independent was born after the staff of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s largest English-language newspaper, suspected that the wealthy owner was seeking to influence coverage under pressure from the authorities, an accusation he denied. When they protested, he fired the whole staff in early November. Around 30 journalists, led by Ms Rudenko, decided to launch an independently funded news outlet. The Kyiv Independent has far exceeded their expectations. Since Russian missiles began hailing down on Ukraine, readers across the globe have been counting on it. As the war began and interest peaked, some 630,000 visitors a day were reading the Kyiv Independent. It has raised almost $2m in crowdfunding to date.

Global freedom of expression index*

Varieties of Democracy Project, 1=highest

Source: The Varieties of Democracy

(V-Dem) Research Project

Globally, press freedom is in retreat. Around 85% of people live in countries where it has declined over the past five years, according to analysis by UNESCO of data on freedom of expression from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute. V-Dem gives each country a score from 0 (least free) to 1 (most free). The global average weighted by population peaked at 0.65 in the early 2000s, and then again in 2011, before falling to 0.49 in 2021. This is the worst score since 1984, when the cold war was raging and the two sides were propping up dictators on every continent.

The sharpest decline has come in the past decade, and has included several of the most populous countries. China declined from very bad (0.26) in 2011 to atrocious (0.08) in 2021. India fell from 0.85 to 0.55; Turkey from 0.54 to 0.15; Egypt from 0.58 to 0.14; Indonesia from 0.83 to 0.68 and Brazil from 0.94 to 0.57. Russia plunged from 0.51 to 0.31 even before the war prompted President Vladimir Putin to crack down more harshly. Ethiopia opened up after 2018, but a civil war means its score for 2022 will be woeful.

Press-freedom index

Reporters Without Borders, 2022

  • No data
  • Good
  • Satisfactory
  • Problematic
  • Difficult
  • Very serious

Several states still deploy old-fashioned brute force against journalists. In 2021, 488 were behind bars, according to Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit group. Many more were subject to intimidation. “Government agents raided my house and threatened to kill me,” says Lucy Kassa, an Ethiopian journalist reporting on atrocities in Tigray. Ms Kassa fled Ethiopia, and, like Ms Rudenko and others, she had no choice but to try new ways of doing journalism. She is continuing to report on Tigray from exile. “I have a strong belief that the truth will find ways to reveal itself, will fight for itself,” Ms Kassa says. “And I consider myself as an instrument of that.”


Even as press freedom has declined over the past decade, the number of journalists killed on the job has also fallen, from 76 in 2011 to 46 in 2021. That may be because authoritarian leaders are finding they can control the news in less grisly ways. To direct the flow of information, many use state funding and laws purportedly meant to guard state security or even to protect the truth. They often pretend to allow a free press, and tolerate some independent voices to reinforce this claim. But they use all the power of the state, including new powers granted by advancing technology, to ensure that these voices are barely audible, while pro-regime media are lavishly favoured and funded.

For such leaders, the covid-19 pandemic has been handy. New rules in countries such as Bolivia, Russia and the Philippines punish the spread of “false information” about the virus with jail time. Brazil has restricted access to government data. And reporters working from home, often on unprotected personal devices, are more vulnerable to cyber attack. A study covering 144 countries suggests pandemic policies have been used to justify curbs on press freedom in 96.

Financial pressure on independent media can be highly effective, not least because the traditional news industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Aside from older people and hipsters, few pay for physical newspapers and magazines today. Advertising has followed readers online, where the duopoly of Google and Meta laps up half of all revenues. PwC, a consultancy, predicts that global newspaper advertising, in print and online, will fall by about 20% between 2019 and 2024.

Global advertising spending

constant prices, $bn

Against that backdrop, governments can cripple critical outlets by withholding advertising, and leaning on private firms to do likewise. Meanwhile, they subsidise more servile competitors. In Mexico, for example, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has squeezed local media by steadily slashing the government advertising budget. The money the state does spend is concentrated on friendly outlets, with more than the official advertising spend going to just 10 media groups, according to one analysis of the 2020 budget. In India advertisers are often frightened to back outlets critical of the ruling party.

Another common trick is for regimes to nudge friendly plutocrats, who often depend on official patronage for their fortunes, to buy up independent media and neuter them. This has happened in Russia, Turkey and Hungary, among other countries. Since Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, took office in 2010, his cronies have snapped up private media groups and turned them into state mouthpieces. Some have donated their media holdings to a pro-government organisation run by former lawmakers for Mr Orban’s Fidesz party. Called the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), this conglomerate now controls over 500 outlets. Mr Orban won a fourth term in office last month, thanks in no small part to his grip on the public’s understanding of reality. The opposition got almost no airtime, except to be denounced as stooges of a Jewish billionaire supposedly conspiring against the Hungarian way of life.

Hungary’s independent-minded journalists have not given up. Telex, a news site, has a similar origin story to the Kyiv Independent. It was founded in Budapest two years ago when more than 80 staff jumped ship from a media group run by an Orban ally. “We knew that we cannot rely on advertisement revenue, because of the political influence of the advertisement market,” says Veronika Munk, co-founder of Telex. “So we decided, ‘OK, let’s turn to our readers.’”


Telex appealed for donations via YouTube, and to build trust with its audience it began sharing detailed information on revenues and spending online. Its finances look good. Between the launch in July 2020 and November, the group reported $3.2m of revenues through grants, donations and journalism awards, and another $920,000 in subscription fees and advertising. In the run-up to the recent election, Telex reporting stood in stark contrast to that by government-led groups. Mr Orban’s team didn’t share details about his campaign events with independent media. It painted the prime minister as a man of the people, posting videos of him pushing his way through crowds of fans, glad-handing. Telex reporters asked readers who learned of coming campaign events to tip them off, then lingered outside. They captured images of Mr Orban driving through empty streets, closely guarded by security, to speak at tiny invitation-only gatherings.

Hungary shows how press freedom can be curtailed in a country that is still, more or less, a democracy—critical voices such as Telex reach far fewer people than state-backed propaganda outlets. In truly authoritarian regimes such as China the muzzle is far tighter. Technology has allowed the Communist Party to snoop and censor on a scale and with a precision that would have been extremely hard to achieve without more brute force even a few years ago. It is not just criticism of officials that is off-limits. Topics like racism and feminism can be as well. Members of the public can be terrified to speak to reporters. And when reporters and their sources put themselves at risk to produce investigative journalism, sharing those stories can be near impossible. In the midst of a covid lockdown in Shanghai in April, Caixin, a Chinese media group, posted an article exposing hidden deaths at the city’s largest elderly care hospital. It lasted online for just an hour, then vanished.

This climate of fear is now enveloping Hong Kong, which until recently allowed relatively free speech. A “national security” law introduced in June 2020 threatens severe penalties, including life sentences, for vaguely defined crimes, such as subversion, that journalists might consider just doing their job. “To simply continue at the moment feels like a revolutionary act,” says Tom Grundy, editor of the Hong Kong Free Press, the last independent English-language news outlet there. The effect, he says, can be insidious. “You get intrusive thoughts when it comes to, you know, self-censorship,” he says. “You can’t help it. Just cringing when you press publish.”


The Hong Kong authorities’ campaign to shut down Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid, and silence its billionaire owner, Jimmy Lai, has provided a template for repressive regimes everywhere. The attack was three-pronged: financial, legal and technological.

Mark Simon, an aide to Mr Lai, says the harassment began more than 20 years ago. The authorities pressed local businessmen to stop advertising with Apple Daily. Other independent news outlets were gradually bought out by pro-Beijing tycoons. Executives’ emails were repeatedly hacked. But the real crackdown came with the national security law. Mr Lai was charged with “foreign collusion” and arrested. Police flooded the Apple Daily newsroom, seizing laptops and hard drives. The death knell came in June, when the group’s bank accounts were frozen. “It wasn’t death by a thousand cuts,” Mr Simon says. “It was ten whacks.”

The reporters at Apple Daily found creative ways to resist, though only for a while. When the Hong Kong police swooped into the newsroom and demanded staff tell them where the servers were, they were infuriated by the response: “in the cloud”. The IT team weren’t joking. As the Chinese Communist Party’s grip over local media tightened, Apple Daily had switched to a secure cloud-based publishing system managed by the Washington Post. Meanwhile, female staff took advantage of the fact that the cops were all men, rushing to the restroom and sending the day’s stories to editors in Taiwan via Facebook. Others live-streamed the raid on social media, stirring public outrage. But then the bank accounts were frozen, and Apple Daily folded. When the final issue was printed, Hong Kongers formed long queues at the newsstands and bought a million copies, more than ten times the usual sales.

Another threat to press freedom is common even in places where journalists are generally respected, such as western Europe. Rich and powerful folk with things to hide have found that over-strict libel laws and vaguely drafted privacy rules can be used to deter nosy journalists. “Strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPPs, are claims that aim not to win justice but to exhaust publications’ time and resources. Those unable to meet legal costs are forced to take down content and often stop reporting on the individuals suing them.

“This was only designed for one thing: to intimidate my family into shutting up”

Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist known as a “one-woman WikiLeaks” for her coverage of state corruption and money-laundering, spent almost every day of the last year of her life in court fighting various cases. Even the car bombing that assassinated her in 2017 did not stop the harassment. Her son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, who along with the rest of the family inherited the cases, recalls attending a hearing just a few days after Ms Galizia died, when the courtroom was filled by the prime minister and his top officials; some of them had brought cases against his mother for her reporting about their extramarital affairs, visits to brothels during an official visit to Germany and the like. “This was only designed for one thing: to intimidate my family into shutting up,” Mr Galizia says.

In a push to stop such misuse of the legal system, the European Commission sketched out new rules in April that would allow reporters to appeal to the courts to have bogus cases thrown out. In European countries, which lag behind places like Canada, Australia and some American states in the development of anti-SLAPP legislation, a collection of non-profit groups identified around 570 such potential cases filed between 2010 and 2021. The list is not exhaustive but it does point to a trend: those bringing the cases are often politicians or public servants, and they often target independent journalists.

Like the law, free speech itself, augmented by technology, has been turned against journalists. Social media provide a platform for hate campaigns that can wear down the most hard-nosed correspondent. Women have it particularly bad. A survey published last year found almost three-quarters of female journalists have experienced some form of online abuse, including suveillance and threats of sexual violence.

Rana Ayyub, an Indian commentator who loudly admonishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi for stoking anti-Muslim violence, has endured a campaign of intimidation by his supporters. Hindu nationalist trolls have superimposed her face onto pornographic videos, called for her murder and shared her home address online. Fear of attack has confined Ms Ayyub to her home for long spells. Unable to eat from the anxiety, she has spent days on end in bed and been fed through an intravenous drip. “It’s a living, breathing nightmare for me and my family,” she says.

As journalism has moved online, repressive governments have found new ways to censor it. China’s “great firewall” is both all-encompassing and sophisticated: it lets the Communist Party block nearly any content it dislikes. Other regimes sometimes use cruder methods. A report published in mid-2021 by Freedom House, a watchdog, found that 20 out of 70 countries had shut down the internet in the previous year to keep their citizens in the dark, typically during periods of unrest. States are increasingly using digital means to snoop on reporters, too. An investigation last year revealed that almost 200 journalists had been targeted by Pegasus spyware, which is sold by an Israeli company to governments across the globe.

Journalists are fighting technology with technology. They conduct interviews on encrypted messaging apps, like Signal or Telegram. To protect whistle-blowers with access to important information, they rely on new sharing tools that erase files as soon as a transfer is complete. Ms Kassa, the journalist forced to flee Ethiopia, continues to report on Tigray via the internet. From her new base, which she asked to keep confidential, Ms Kassa conducts interviews with victims and witnesses of atrocities over the phone. She asks a network of locals she has developed, people who are not on the Ethiopian government’s radar, to get hold of photographs, videos and health records as evidence. In regions where there is a communications blackout, these so-called fixers go to NGO offices, which are sometimes the only buildings with WiFi connections, to share documents with Ms Kassa via messaging apps. She compares each story against satellite imagery, and she has hired experts to help her spot doctored images. An article that would have taken her one week to report on the ground now takes a month. But, Ms Kassa insists, “there are always ways.”

“Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here”

Reporters can be annoying. When they bang on about freedom of the press, they might sound self-serving. But as Timothy Garton Ash, a professor at Oxford University and author of “Free Speech”, puts it, “you need these pesky, difficult people.” They scrutinise the powerful, helping to hold them to account. Research shows that where there is freedom of the press there is less corruption. By contrast, when autocrats constrict or distort the news, they force their publics to live in a fantasy world.

Consider Russia. Even as Mr Putin is failing in his war on Ukraine, he is succeeding in myth-making at home. His propaganda machine is spewing lies, including that war crimes committed by his forces are hoaxes staged by actors, and he has criminalised objective reporting. A story in the Kyiv Independent in early March, based on WhatsApp voice notes from a distraught woman in the central Russian city of Aleysk, revealed to the world that Russian troops were sustaining heavy losses and bodies were being sent home in secret. But most Russians remain in the dark about such losses and supportive of the war. Victoria Arefyeva, a photojournalist for Sota.Vision, an independent news outlet, faces constant harassment while trying to report on protests: “You begin to realise you can no longer film as before.” Those determined to challenge the state narrative must take extreme steps, like Marina Ovsyannikova, a television producer who interrupted a live broadcast on state-owned Channel One holding a sign: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.”


Elena Kostyuchenko, an investigative reporter, has been beaten by thugs for her reporting, and she has seen four colleagues murdered in her 17 years at Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. She says that while brave correspondents kept up their work before the war, the new censorship laws are succeeding in stifling them. Publications like hers have been forced to stop printing and to take down online articles. Even tech-savvy Russians are struggling to reach blocked content now that many Russian bank cards have been disabled, making it tricky to pay for VPN services.”I love my country,” Ms Kostyuchenko says, when asked why she would risk jail by reporting there. “It may sound strange, but it’s still true.”

Perhaps Ms Kassa is right when she says that the truth can fight for itself. But the omens are not good. As government control over the media grows more sophisticated, even the bravest and most innovative journalists are finding it harder to do their jobs. If the steady erosion of press freedom is not reversed, governments will get away with more abuses and everyone will find it harder to understand the world as it is.

“Press freedom: what’s at stake”, a documentary film by The Economist, records our investigation into the decline of press freedom. It is available to watch here.


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