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2017: Grim year for free speech and media freedom

Patrick Grosse
December 15, 2017

With the "leader of the free world" warring against the press, governments shutting down the internet and journalists behind bars, 2017 has been a tough year for press freedom around the world. Here’s a look back.

Türkei Protest für Pressefreiheit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

The end of each year marks the time when reports concerning journalism and free speech are released. A glance at all of the reports paints a dismal portrait. In almost every index, the state of media freedom is at a low point not seen in decades.

The number of imprisoned journalists reached a new record high in 2017. According to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 262 journalists around the world found themselves behind bars because of their work. The worst three jailors - Turkey, China and Egypt - are responsible for more than the half of all jailed journalists.

In addition, 59 journalists were killed this year while doing their jobs according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Organizations have also documented increased harassment of journalists in many countries from South America to southeast Asia. New cases appear in the media almost every day. In November, Tanzanian journalist Azory Gwanda left his house in the company of four men and has not been seen since.

Here is a summary of the year in press freedom featuring specific examples of journalists being persecuted for their work as well as other trends related to media freedom and free speech.

New York City Trump erste PK als designierter Präsident
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. A. Clary

The Trump effect

In January, Donald Trump took office as president of the United States. In his inauguration speech, Trump made clear that he would always put America's interests first. Whenever questioned by what he calls the "mainstream media," Trump reacts by just calling the coverage "fake news."

Trump publicly accuses news outlets like the New York Times and CNN of having a liberal agenda that is aligned against himself and his supporters. He once said journalists were "among the most dishonest human beings on earth," later in the year he tweeted that the nation's news media "is the enemy of the American people."

This attempt to undermine the credibility of the media has had various degrees of success, especially amongst his base. But there were some signs that this strategy might be backfiring as support for news outlets reporting on Trump's relationship with Russia, for example, is increasing. In the first quarter of the year, the New York Times reported more than 300,000 new digital subscribers – the biggest jump in the newspaper's history.

An increasing number of elected officials have gone on to adopt the term fake news to refer to mainstream media outlets. Even foreign leaders, such as Philippian President Rodrigo Duterte, have recently adopted the phrase in attacks against the press.

Fake news has been especially visible this year on social media. Purposely false stories have reached millions on Facebook and Twitter, many of them originating from outside the US. At the end of the US election campaign, it was estimated that fake news had even more Facebook engagements than news of mainstream media, according to a Buzzfeed study. That's why the fear of fake news was omnipresent at all major election campaigns this year, including France and Germany.

Duden - Das Wort "Fake News"
Image: Picture alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Election fears

Nearly one in three Germans thinks that fake news played a major role in the outcome of Germany's 2017 general election in September according to a study by the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV). The same study quoted security authorities reassuring voters prior to the polls that the German election was not under attack by hackers or rampant propaganda. 

And even though voters feared the impact of fake news on their vote, most people are able to debunk them on their own. The SNV survey found that fake news functions best where it is targeted for greatest impact and designed for an intended audience. Many supporters of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party believed fake stories about refugees in Germany during the campaign.

The forces behind fake news didn't spare the French presidential election either. A study by Oxford University shows that false information was being spread via social media ahead of the first election round. But the impact on French voters seems less severe than in the US presidential election.

"French voters are sharing better quality information than what many US voters shared," according to the study.

Symbolbild Pressefreiheit in der Türkei
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

Trouble in Turkey

After an attempted military coup in 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been moving to strengthen his hold on the country. In a referendum in April, a tight majority voted in favor of implementing a presidential system in order to give Erdogan more power. 

Erdogan has also taken aggressive actions against critics, many of whom are academics and journalists. Newspapers were forced to close while reporters and other media representatives were attacked and taken into custody. RSF reported that there are 40 journalists still in custody in Turkish prisons, including German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel.

The reporter from the German newspaper Die Welt has already spent more than 300 days in prison as he awaits trial. He has been charged with propagandizing for a terrorist organization and provoking the people to hatred and animosity. 

Jobs für Jugend in Kamerun
Image: DW/M. Kindzeka

Blacked-out in Cameroon

The practice of shutting down media outlets and arresting journalists is well-known in Cameroon too. In January, a local governor ordered a radio channel to suspend all activities, accusing it of inciting civil disobedience. Two weeks later police arrested Hans Achomba, a Cameroonian freelance journalist and accused him of "complicity to hostility against the fatherland."

These incidents occurred amid a conflict between the English-speaking minority and the French-speaking majority. Anglophone Cameroonians went on strike after the government's decision to impose French in their schools and courts and some even threatened to secede. They feel that they are being marginalized and relegated to second-class citizens.

As a consequence of their protests, the government shut down internet access in the English-speaking regions for more than three months. After the lift of the ban in April, President Paul Biya and his government warned they reserved the right to "take measures to stop the internet once again becoming a tool to stoke hatred and division among Cameroonians."

In August, President Biya announced that all of the journalists who have been detained at protests in the English-speaking regions would be released, including Achomba. But one journalist remains in custody. Ahmed Abba, a correspondent for Radio France's Hausa service, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military court in April. He is charged of non-denunciation of terrorism and laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts.

Venezuela Proteste 18.2.2014
Image: Reuters

Crisis in the Americas

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is pushing for a new constitution that he says will bring more peace and wealth to his country. But the opposition and international observers accuse him of trying to introduce a dictatorship. In July, members of a constituent assembly were appointed after a controversial election disempowering the former parliament. This led to massive demonstrations all over the country with police clashing with protesters in the streets.

Journalists covering the protests were detained, injured or had their equipment seized. On election day for the new constituent assembly, authorities also impeded journalists from covering the voting. Two journalists, Antonio Medina and Alberto Cabrera, were detained during protests in July and are still behind bars.

In February, Maduro jumped on the Trump narrative calling international broadcasters fake news. He said that he wanted CNN en Español out of the country and three days later Venezuela's state telecommunications regulator ordered transmissions of the American international channel to be suspended. In April, two other channels from Columbia and Argentina were taken off the air.

One of the most dangerous working environments for journalists is in Mexico. Several journalists were killed while they were reporting on drug cartels, organized crime and political corruption. Numbers differ strongly between five journalists killed in 2017, according to CPJ and 11 media representativesaccording to RSF.

Jemen Luftangriff auf Saada
Image: Reuters/N. Rahma

Covering a war zone

The ongoing civil war in Yemen is the world's forgotten war for 2017. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries have joined the government's fight against the so-called Houthi rebels. The alliance, with support from the US, France and the United Kingdom, aims to stabilize the current situation. Thousands of civilians have been killed, including two journalists.

Freelance cameramen Takieddin al-Hudhaifi and Wael al-Absi were killed in May while covering the fighting in the Yemeni city of Taiz. In July, a reporter for the Yemeni broadcaster Al-Maseerah and his cameraman were injured in an airstrike. And in August, an unidentified armed group abducted a local journalist in southwestern Yemen. Finally in December, Houthi forces stormed the headquarters of the television channel Yemen Today and detained the channel's employees.

Berlin Mahnwache Daphne Caruana Galizia Malta Journalistin
Image: Imago/C. Mang

A murder in Europe

Europe was shocked by the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October. She was killed by a car bomb in Malta, a member state of the European Union. Caruana Galizia had written a popular investigative blog that accused some of Malta's most prominent figures, up to and including Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, of corruption. She was also one of the journalists who cooperated in the investigation of the Panama Papers. The incident raised Europe-wide concerns about the rule of law in the Mediterranean island country.

Three suspects were arrested in early December and pleaded not guilty to charges that include the possession of bomb-making material and weapons. Police did not immediately make clear whether they believed that the men had acted under contract to carry out the murder or plotted it on their own.

Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament has called for an international investigation into the incident. 

"We will not turn our eyes away from what happened in Malta," he said. "I want to know the name of the killer as well as the mother and father of this heinous crime."