Freedom of the Press Under Attack

Stephen Rohde looks at three new reports that detail assaults to freedom of the press and freedom of speech over the past year.

Freedom of the Press Under Attack

WHILE PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP’S attacks on journalists and freedom of the press — repeatedly calling the media “the enemy of the American people” — pose a dangerous threat to our democracy, his authoritarian compatriots around the world are going to far greater lengths to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In fact, three recent comprehensive reports reveal that many foreign countries are punishing, prosecuting, jailing, and even killing journalists to suppress dissent, crush opposition, and conceal corruption and official wrongdoing. They are: Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws issued by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism issued by Freedom House; and Worldwide Round-Up of Journalists Killed, Detained, Held Hostage, and Missing in 2018 issued by Reporters Without Borders for Freedom of Information. These reports demonstrate that when it comes to freedom of speech and press around the world, the arc of history is not bending toward justice; it is being bent by authoritarian and even nominally democratic governments toward censorship, repression, and the very elimination of journalists.


It may come as a surprise that September 30 is International Blasphemy Day. It originated in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, which prompted riots in Muslim communities around the world, according to a September 18, 2018 story in Newsweek magazine. The "offence of blasphemy continues to be criminal," Newsweek reported, "not only in some Muslim-majority countries but [also in] many others, as it remains an 'astonishingly widespread' practice," according to an August 2017 report published by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which lists 71 countries that punish acts of blasphemy.

According to Newsweek, in Iran and Pakistan blasphemy can be punished by death, in Sudan the punishment is whipping, in Russia and Kazakhstan its compulsory and "correctional" labor, respectively, and in Saudi Arabia "the exact punishments for blasphemy are not strictly codified but leave sentencing up to the government’s interpretation of Islam." In Russia, according to Newsweek,

[y]oung people have been targeted by authorities in recent years as two people posting memes that mock Orthodox Christianity and one student playing Pokemon Go in a church have faced criminal investigations, while Kremlin-critics Pussy Riot spent nearly two years in prison for staging a protest performance in a church in 2012.

According to USCIRF chair Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, as reported in Newsweek, by making “governments the arbiters of truth and religious doctrines, blasphemy laws are ripe for abuse by authorities to use against citizens who may articulate minority or dissenting views.”

Jonathan Turley, George Washington University Law School professor, in a 2009 blog post on Res Ipsa Loquitur, noted that around the world,

free speech is being sacrificed on the alter of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination, or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law.


“The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.” That is the disturbing opening sentence of Freedom House’s recent report, Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, a comprehensive study of internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 87 percent of the world’s internet users. A cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, in 2018 global internet freedom declined for the eighth year in a row. (In-depth reports on each country can be found at

The Freedom House report emphasizes that:

[S]ecuring internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy as a whole. Technology should empower citizens to make their own social, economic, and political choices without coercion or hidden manipulation. The internet has become the modern public sphere, and social media and search engines have both tremendous power and a weighty responsibility to ensure that their platforms serve the public good. If antidemocratic entities effectively capture the internet, citizens will be denied a forum to articulate shared values, debate policy questions, and peacefully settle intrasocietal disputes. Democracy also requires a protected private sphere. The unrestrained and largely unexamined collection of personal data inhibits one’s right to be let alone, without which peace, prosperity, and individual freedom — the fruits of democratic governance — cannot be sustained or enjoyed.

More than 70 analysts contributed to this year’s edition of Freedom House’s report looking at internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues. The report focuses on developments that occurred between June 2017 and May 2018. Of the 65 countries assessed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017, compared with 19 that had net improvements. The most precipitous declines took place in Egypt and Sri Lanka, followed by Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

In Egypt, two women were arrested in separate incidents for “uploading video confessionals on Facebook to decry such abuses” against women in that country. “Both were accused of spreading false information to harm public security; one, a visiting Lebanese tourist, was sentenced to eight years in prison.” According to the report, “Egyptian authorities undertook a broader crackdown on dissent by blocking some 500 websites, including those of prominent human rights organizations and independent media outlets.”

The report then moves to Sri Lanka, where “authorities shut down social media platforms for two days during communal riots that broke out in March and led to at least two deaths.” Freedom House found that “[r]umors and disinformation had spread on digital platforms, sparking vigilante violence that predominantly targeted the Muslim minority.”

Furthermore, the report found that:

In almost half of the countries where internet freedom declined, the reductions were related to elections. Twelve countries suffered from a rise in disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, or arrests of government critics in the lead-up to elections. As Venezuela held a presidential election in May, the government of Nicolás Maduro, passed a vaguely written law that imposed severe prison sentences for inciting “hatred” online.

The report also shows that the “implementation of the ‘Fatherland Card’ — an electronic identification system used to channel social aid — stirred suspicions that data collected through the device could be exploited to monitor and pressure voters.” Before its July 2018 general elections, Cambodia also experienced an uptick in arrests and prison sentences related to online speech, “as the government sought to broaden the arsenal of offenses used to silence dissent, including a new lèse-majesté law that bans insults to the monarchy,” according to the report.

The Philippines fell from Free to Partly Free. “Harassment of dissenting voices escalated, with authorities attempting to close down a local news website known for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs,” and “the media organization Vera Files, one of several outlets to suffer cyberattacks during the year, was hit with a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack shortly after it published a sensitive story about Duterte and his daughter’s declaration of assets,” the report found.

Over in Kenya, which also slid from Free to Partly Free,

online manipulation and disinformation targeted voters during the August 2017 elections, while a Cybercrime Law passed in May 2018 increased the maximum penalty for publishing “false” or “fictitious” information to 10 years in prison if the action results in “panic” or is “likely to discredit the reputation of a person,” despite the fact that criminal defamation was ruled unconstitutional in 2017. An association of bloggers appealed provisions of the law, which were suspended for further review. These negative developments occurred against the backdrop of growing surveillance concerns and ongoing arrests of bloggers and ordinary social media users for criticizing government officials or posting alleged hate speech.

Even the United States suffered a decline in internet freedom:

The Federal Communications Commission repealed rules that guaranteed net neutrality, the principle that service providers should not prioritize internet traffic based on its type, source, or destination. The move sparked efforts by civil society groups and state-level authorities to restore the protections on a local basis. In a blow to civil rights and privacy advocates, Congress reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act, including the controversial Section 702, thereby missing an opportunity to reform surveillance powers that allow the government to conduct broad sweeps in search of non-US targets and routinely collect the personal communications of Americans in the process. “Despite an online environment that remains vibrant, diverse, and free, disinformation and hyperpartisan content continued to be of pressing concern in the United States, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

Freedom House reaches the disturbing conclusions that “events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships.” In April 2018, Mark Zuckerberg testified in Congress about:

his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation. The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes. Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters.

“With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities,” the report notes. Over the past year in Southeast Asia, propaganda that was disseminated online “incited jarring outbreaks of violence against ethnic and religious minorities,” which “often serve the interests of antidemocratic forces in society, the government, or hostile foreign states, which have actively encouraged them through content manipulation.”

The report eventually concludes that “China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018,” finding that “[a]s democratic societies struggle with the challenges of a more dangerous and contested online sphere, leaders in Beijing have stepped up efforts to use digital media to increase their own power, both at home and abroad.” Ominously, the Chinese government

hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance. Moreover, its companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to a variety of governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities.

According to Freedom House, “[d]igital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, Freedom House discovered that

authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model. Governments in countries such as Egypt and Iran rewrote restrictive media laws to apply to social media users, jailed critics under measures designed to curb false news, and blocked foreign social media and communication services. China, Russia, and other repressive states are also demanding that companies store their citizens’ data within their borders, where the information can be accessed by security agencies.

While “democracies are famously slow at responding to crises — their systems of checks and balances, open deliberation, and public participation are not conducive to rapid decision-making,” the report found that ironically “this built-in caution has helped some semidemocratic countries fend off authoritarian-style internet controls over the past year.” The report furnishes a couple examples:

In May, Kenyan bloggers challenged the constitutionality of criminal provisions against the spread of false news, winning a suspension of the rules pending a final court judgment. That same month, Malaysians voted in a prime minister who promised to rescind a recently adopted law against fake news that was used by his predecessor in a failed attempt to sway the elections.

In a sign of hope, Freedom House discovered:

[S]ome countries are not just resisting setbacks, but making real progress on internet freedom. In a significant if imperfect step forward for user privacy, over 500 million citizens in the European Union gained new rights over their personal data on May 25 as part of the General Data Protection Regulation.

Freedom House concludes that:

If democracy is to survive the digital age, technology companies, governments, and civil society must work together to find real solutions to the problems of social media manipulation and abusive data collection. Multilateral and cross-sectoral coordination is required to promote digital literacy, identify malicious actors, and deny them the tools to fraudulently amplify their voices. When it comes to protecting data, users must be granted the power to ward off undue intrusions into their personal lives by both the government and corporations. Global internet freedom can and should be the antidote to digital authoritarianism. The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.


No form of censorship is more final and brutally effective than death. Just ask Jamal Khashoggi and the other 701 professional journalists who were killed in the line of duty in the past 10 years. Actually, you can’t ask them anything because they are dead and you will never read or hear or see anything they have to report ever again. Nor can you ask the 408 journalists who are being detained or held hostage across the world as of last December.

Since 1995, Reporters Without Borders for Freedom of Information (or Reporters Sans Frontières) (RSF) has been gathering and publicizing these terrifying statistics. Based on thorough research and fact-finding missions, RSF issues annual reports and pressures governments and international organizations through campaigns and protests letters to protect journalists and investigate and prosecute those who do them harm.

RSF’s Worldwide Round-Up of Journalists Killed, Detained, Held Hostage, and Missing in 2018 combines vivid statistical graphics with brief personal accounts that together tell a harrowing story of how these brave professional and non-professional journalists and media workers are being brutally treated and killed for simply gathering information and reporting the news.

In 2018, 80 journalists (professional, non-professional, and media workers) were killed, 49 of whom were murdered or deliberately targeted. The number of professionals killed rose 15 percent from 2017. Some of the deadliest countries for reporting the news are Afghanistan (15), Syria (11), and Yemen (eight). Moreover, nine journalists were killed in Mexico, six in India, and six in the United States, those being the four journalists during the attack on the Capital Gazette on June 28 in Annapolis, Maryland, and two while covering Subtropical Storm Alberto in North Carolina.

The report provides several gruesome examples. The strangulation and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, at the hands of the Saudi Arabian government in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has gained international attention. In Mexico, last July local news website editor Ruben Pat was gunned down in the street in the state of Quintana Roo, only one month after asking for urgent protection when one of his reporters, José Guadalupe Chan Dzib, was murdered in Sabán. In the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, on March 25, a village chief killed two journalists, Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh, in retaliation for their reporting. The very same day in the state of Madhya Pradesh, journalist Sandeep Sharma, who had been investigating a local “sand mafia,” was killed. In April, Yaser Murtaja, clearly identified as a journalist, was fatally shot by an Israeli army sniper while covering a series of Palestinian demonstrations on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Two weeks later, Ahmed Abu Hussein, another Palestinian journalist, was fatally shot while covering a similar protest at the border.

Worldwide, a total of 348 professional and non-professional journalists were being held in detention at the start of December 2018, a seven percent increase over the prior year. China “continues to be the world’s biggest jailer of journalists with 60 held,” many of whom are mistreated and some tortured. The rogue’s gallery of imprisoned journalists continues with Egypt (38), Turkey (33), Iran (28), and Saudi Arabia (28). Aside from these detentions, 60 journalists are being held hostage by non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Houthis, al-Qaeda, and others in Syria (31), Yemen (17), Iraq (11), and Ukraine (one).

RSF also knows of at least 10 non-professional journalists “who are in danger of dying in Chinese prisons, including Ilham Tohti, a 2016 Sakharov Prize nominee, who is serving a life sentence, and Huang Qi, a recipient of the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2004, who has been held without trial for more than two years.” In Iran, last February, 12 journalists who worked for the news website Majzooban Noor, the only source of independent news about the Gonabadi dervishes, a Sufi religious community persecuted in Iran, were all arrested in a single night, and no information is available about their fate. In Turkey, Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak, three journalists in their 60s and 70s, were sentenced in February “to life imprisonment under the severest form of isolation, with no possibility of temporary release or pardon.”

In the face of these atrocities and hundreds like them, since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2222 on the safety of journalists in May 2015, RSF has been leading the #ProtectJournalists campaign, with the support of 130 media outlets, journalists’ organizations and unions, and an increasing number of governments for the appointment of a special representative of the secretary-general for the protection of journalists. To date, 14 focal points have been identified by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

RSF is also promoting an initiative for a Pledge on Information and Democracy, which would establish “the right to reliable news and information, define the global information and communication space as a common good of humankind, make online platforms accountable, and create an international group of experts on information and democracy.”


Recently, The New York Times reported two very disturbing cases under Indonesia’s draconian online criminal defamation law, which provides for up to four years in prison.

On February 26, Saidah Saleh Syamlan, a housewife in Surabaya, was sentenced to 10 months in prison over four WhatsApp messages critical of a local business. And on March 7, Robertus Robet, an activist and co-founder of Amnesty International Indonesia, was arrested for insulting a state institution by singing an old anti-military song at a political rally in Jakarta protesting a proposal to give army generals civilian posts in the government.

“Cracking down on dissidents has reached an alarming level in Indonesia,” Usman Hamid, executive director of AI in Indonesia, stated. “Regular citizens face charges for peaceful opinions posted on social media platforms.” Criminal defamation laws also exist in Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand.

It is terrifying to realize that in 2019 people around the world are going to jail — and as we’ve seen, being killed — for engaging in the fundamental right to free expression. As peace-loving people struggle to end wars and violence, freedom-loving people must struggle to end the censorship of ideas and opinions.


Stephen Rohde is a retired constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Rohde is a writer, lecturer, and political activist. For almost 50 years, he practiced civil rights, civil liberties, and intellectual property law. He is a past chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and past National Chair of Bend the Arc, a Jewish Partnership for Justice. He is a founder and current chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, member of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, and a member of the Black Jewish Justice Alliance. Rohde is the author of American Words of Freedom and Freedom of Assembly (part of the American Rights series), and numerous articles and book reviews on civil liberties and constitutional history for Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican ProspectLos Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Lawyer, Truth Out, LA Progressive, Variety, and other publications. He is also co-author of Foundations of Freedom, published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Rohde received Bend the Arc’s “Pursuit of Justice” Award, and his work has been recognized by the ACLU and American Bar Association. Rohde received his BA degree in political science from Northwestern University and his JD degree from Columbia Law School. 


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