Fighting the New Censorship: Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists

From terrorists and authoritarian regimes to government surveillance and control of the Internet, the threats to freedom of expression are greater than ever.

“The battle for freedom of expression is the defining struggle of this moment,” says Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship.

Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization formed by journalists in the US in 1981 to advocate on behalf of colleagues who were under threat because of their reporting. Today it comprises dozens of staff who deal with a mounting array of threats to journalists and media workers all over the world. In addition to its research functions -- which include annual surveys of imprisoned and exiled journalists, investigating and documenting stories and statistics about slain journalists, and calculating an annual ‘Impunity Index’ that ranks countries on the basis of unsolved killings of journalists -- it also meets with politicians and justice officials around the world, and conducts campaigns against impunity, censorship and efforts to use libel and slander laws to silence journalists.

On top of all this, Simon—a journalist himself, who has worked extensively in Mexico—has just published his new book outlining the new forms of censorship and threats to freedom of expression that have arisen in recent years. His work is spurred on by a conviction that this is a defining historical moment in “the global battle for media freedom”.

“What gave this book impetus was the moment we’re living through in history… this is the most dangerous moment in history for journalists,” he said when we spoke.

But it’s not just about journalists. The ‘information revolution’, as he describes it, means that everyone who accesses, consumes, shares and uses information has a stake in resisting efforts to control access to information and to impose new forms of censorship.

“For the first time in history, it’s not just about advocating for a professional class of journalists. For the first time in history everyone understands what is at stake.”

Simon’s book identifies several of the threats that imperil not only journalists, but access to information and freedom of expression worldwide.

The New Censorship: Terrorism, Hostage-taking, State Surveillance

His book provides moving and detailed case studies of several murdered journalists, from fearless investigative reporters in countries like Russia, Mexico and Pakistan, to the 32 journalists and media workers gunned down by a candidate’s militia during an election in the Philippines. The stories are moving, and ghastly. But they offer a visceral picture of the dangers journalists face.

The recent spate of high-profile executions of journalists by Islamic State are the continuation of a process of targeting journalists that’s been gaining momentum since the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002. That marked a deadly shift in how terrorist organizations treated journalists, stemming in part from the fact that terrorists – and criminal gangs, in countries like Mexico – no longer need journalists to get their messages out to the public. The proliferation of internet access and social media allows terrorists and criminals to communicate directly with the public on their own terms, via chat rooms, videos and Twitter accounts, so reporters are no longer valued or tolerated as a way of communicating with the public. Instead, the horror with which journalists’ murders have been received has increased the propaganda value of those murders. In other cases, terrorists and militias see the kidnapping of journalists as a way of raising revenue through ransom demands.

Journalists also face dangers from state forces. Given that terrorist organizations now also often videotape attacks for propaganda purposes, it can be difficult to differentiate journalists from combatants, especially when the journalists are local freelancers. But as Simon points out, there has also been too little effort put into trying. Moreover, local freelancers—such as Iraqi or Afghan journalists working in their home countries—are often subjected to heightened harassment, violence and mistrust by foreign soldiers (while also being targeted by terrorists and militias).

Journalists who choose to operate independently instead of being embedded with state forces—the only way to gather truly objective news—also risk being targeted by nervous, trigger-happy soldiers. This was brutally demonstrated in the tragic case of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena in 2005. After being kidnapped and held hostage for a month by an Iraqi militia, her release was negotiated by the Italian government, which purportedly paid a $6-8 million ransom. As she was being driven back to Baghdad by Italian officials following her release, their car came under fire from US troops, and the envoy who negotiated her release—Nicola Calipari--was killed protecting her.

The book makes for grim reading, but conveys its message in deadly earnest.

The threats to public access to information don’t involve the same degree of life and limb, but the danger to free society and civil liberties are equally profound. Government surveillance and impunity in hacking and accessing journalists’ data undermines not only freedom of the press but the political movements whose journalistic contacts are compromised. Efforts by China and other authoritarian regimes to wrest control of the Internet away from the United States and put it under international jurisdiction also pose a serious threat. The United States may not be a paragon of democratic virtue, but it has made greater strides in sharing Internet governance with civil society groups than is likely to occur if countries like China have greater say over Internet governance. Yet the revelations of US spying on its own allies, including European countries, has greatly undermined its credibility with those erstwhile allies. This, in turn, jeopardizes efforts to keep control of the web out of the hands of more overtly authoritarian regimes. An additional threat is posed by efforts in some countries to build rival internets; here too countries like China and Iran are making determined strides.

Simon's book leaves little doubt that this is indeed a pivotal moment in history. How will the struggle against these new forms of censorship play out?

Facing the Threat

I spoke with Simon about the dangers he discussed in his book. One of the sites of struggle, he emphasized, is what he refers to as ‘democratators’. He uses this phrase to refer to a new breed of populist dictators: ones who win power through democratic elections instead of military coups, but who then use their electoral achievements to consolidate power and remove democratic and judicial barriers to their authority. They use democratic means to gain power, but then imperil the freedom of expression and opposition voices, which also play an important role in democracy. They’re different from traditional dictators, but still dangerous.

“The main difference is they subject themselves to elections and win elections legitimately… (they) have genuine popularity. But they use the election and the legitimacy it confers to dismantle the institutions that limit power. Fundamental among these is the media.”

Examples of ‘democratators’, according to Simon, include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, among others. His book examines these three examples in some depth. While traditional dictators, supported by repressive militaries and secret police forces, still exist, it is becoming harder to rule by this method in a globalized world where economic productivity and the generating of wealth requires countries to engage with each other. A façade of populist democratic legitimacy is therefore necessary.

“I see them as the vanguard of this new style of oppression… this democratator strategy is much more effective.”

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