INDEPENDENT, truth-seeking journalists are all that stand between authoritarian governments and total lack of accountability. Little wonder, then, that the rise of ‘strongman politics’ across the world has seen corresponding attacks on press freedom in various ways designed to destroy journalists’ credibility and stifle their voice. These dictatorial forces have now claimed the scalp of Maria Ressa, acclaimed journalist and CEO of Rappler Inc, a Philippines-based news website that is frequently critical of President Duterte. On Monday, a court in Manila found Ms Ressa guilty of cyber libel and sentenced her for up to six years in prison. Reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr and Rappler itself were found guilty of the same. The conviction pertained to a story published on the site in 2012 that referenced an intelligence report linking a wealthy Filipino businessman to various serious offences, including murder. Mr Duterte has been particularly incensed by Rappler’s no-holds-barred coverage of his government’s brutal ‘war on drugs’, which under the guise of law enforcement, gives police carte blanche to commit extra-judicial killings.
Governments seeking to hide their corruption and human rights violations from the world have weaponised anti-defamation and antiterrorism laws to go after reporters engaged in the lawful pursuit of facts. They deploy social media trolls to smear journalists and news organisations as traitors simply for publishing unpalatable truths, and use conveniently vague laws against ‘anti-state’ activity to hound them through the courts. Ms Ressa is the latest in a long line of journalists made to pay the price for holding governments accountable. In September 2017, two Reuters reporters from Myanmar were convicted under the country’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years behind bars; they had been apprehended while investigating a massacre of Rohingya by security forces and Buddhist civilians in the country’s Rakhine province. International pressure led to their release, but not before they had spent 511 days in prison. In Turkey, even now, four years after President Erdogan’s media purge following a failed coup attempt, around 90 journalists remain imprisoned, mostly on spurious terrorism and defamation-related charges. Sometimes, the authorities do not even bother with the formalities. One example is Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian journalist working with Al Jazeera, who has been incarcerated without charge in his country for three and a half years now.
The media in Pakistan has been working under unprecedented pressure in recent years. Dawn itself has been repeatedly maligned for publishing properly corroborated news reports — once taken to court — and even on-the-record interviews with senior officials, simply because the content did not conform to the ‘sanctioned’ narrative. Shady business tycoons with connections in the corridors of power here have also brought completely untenable defamation suits against the paper for exposés of their criminality. An independent media is ultimately an ally of the people and therefore the bête noire of governments that look to serve themselves.
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2020