Press freedom at risk in democracies and dictatorships, Knight Center director warns

By Eric Freedman

Professor Eric Freedman

These early days of 2022 are an opportune time to look back and assess last year’s press freedom environment in the United States and abroad.

It’s a troubling picture for journalists and news organizations pursuing their obligation to provide fair, balanced and accurate coverage of public affairs, to hold institutions of government and power accountable. to give voice to the voiceless and to act ethically amid a sea of misinformation and disinformation.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently reported: “The number of journalists jailed around the world set another record in 2021. Invoking new tech and security laws, repressive regimes from Asia to Europe to Africa cracked down harshly on the independent press.”

The numbers tell a grim story: a record 293 journalists jailed because of their work – including a Michigan journalist jailed in Southeast Asia – up from 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists killed because of their work. Another 18 dead “in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets,” according to CPJ, a U.S.-based press rights defender organization.

It’s no surprise that ultra-authoritarian regimes like those in China, Myanmar, Egypt, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Belarus appear in the top ranks – or the dark depths – of the bad guys’ roster of free speech violators. In Kazakhstan, another dictatorship, authorities detained at least eight journalists and blocked at least two news sites covering the first few days of anti-government and price hike protests in early January.

Reporters without Borders, an international press rights advocacy group based in France, said its 2021 World Press Freedom Index “shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked.”

The United States ranked only 44th among those 180 countries.

Referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol, Reporters without Borders said, “The erosion of trust in the American media and unchecked conspiracy theories that continue to flourish online will require a concerted effort by all – the public sector and private companies alike – to ensure that press freedom in the U.S. runs more than just skin deep.”

We can look close to home in putting a human face on this deeply disturbing situation.

In November, Myanmar authorities released Detroit journalist Danny Fenster from prison. He had been the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent news organization covering politics, business and public affairs in one of the world’s most anti-human rights countries.

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