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.”

Freelancing in a Dangerous World

One of the recent shifts that has taken place in journalism has been an increased reliance on freelancers, many of whom are based in the countries they report on. Where news agencies formerly maintained foreign bureaus with trained international correspondents, this is becoming less the norm. This shift is due to technological advances, budgetary cutbacks, as well as the heightened costs of protecting reporters in countries where they are increasingly targets. Instead, news agencies have become increasingly reliant on freelancers, many of them local. This has created a host of new challenges. Freelancers have varying levels of experience, and often venture into dangerous conflict situations without adequate training, skills or support. If they’re injured, taken hostage or killed, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have the support of a large international media organization to act on their behalf.

“We’ll probably kill journalists who don’t report the truth, says Thai leader” — headline in the 25 March 2015 issue of The Guardian

Yet efforts to improve protections for freelancers are bearing fruit. A new organization—the Frontline Freelance Register—was formed by international freelancers in 2013 to advocate on their behalf. Working with newswires, media companies and journalistic organizations like CPJ, it negotiated a set of standards designed to protect freelancers and acknowledge both the responsibilities of freelancers operating in conflict zones, as well as the responsibilities of media organizations and companies to support and protect freelance journalists.

In February, this set of ‘Global Safety Principles and Practices’ was unveiled in a launch at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York. More than 30 organizations—including the likes of Reuters, Associated Press, European Federation of Journalists, International Women’s Media Foundation, Video News Japan, and more—have already signed on to them. It’s a start.

“Absolutely the companies that employ freelancers have an obligation to treat freelancers that take on high-risk assignments as staff, and take on the same kind of duty of care,” said Simon. “And to think as broadly as possible about the supportive roles and the risks that those people take.”

It’s not just the freelancers they need to be thinking about, he notes, but the whole chain of people that news coverage relies on – people who provide transportation, drivers, translators, and more.

“I think there’s a growing realization of the dependence. The industry depends on them but we as consumers depend on these people too. There’s a growing awareness of their role.”

Defining Journalism

What is a journalist? The question becomes an increasingly contentious and complicated one in a world where bloggers, activists and on-the-spot ‘citizen journalists’ play as much of a role in providing news and information as traditional, professional journalists. When it comes to protecting the rights, freedom and safety of journalists then, who are we talking about? The question has led some, including some governments, to propose adopting formal designations for journalists.

Simon warns against codifying definitions of what constitutes a ‘journalist’.

“The question is a legal one, and the problem with defining journalists in a national or international context is the definition becomes a form of legal licensing. Some people become journalists and some not, and it’s the government making the definition. That’s what we need to avoid, and we need to desperately avoid it. Journalists perform a special role in the current media ecosystem, but we also need to ensure that the contributions that come from average people who engage in acts of journalism are also protected.”

This does not, of course, mean that just anyone is a journalist. But it’s important that people have the right to self-identify as such regardless of what governments might say.

“It’s very important that journalists self-identify, that they say ‘I’m a journalist and this is the ethical framework in which I operate’ …all of that is critically important. As a journalist myself I believe strongly that there is an ethical framework in which journalists have to operate.”

Charting a Future for Free Expression

The New Censorship can be a sobering read. But there is hope. Simon concludes with a series of predictions for what we can expect to see in the near future, and proposals for actions that can bolster freedom of expression. Exposing the ways in which ‘democratators’ are dismantling the checks on their own power, and extending greater protection to freelancers, are key. So is taking action to lobby governments to end the impunity with which paramilitaries and criminal gangs carry out attacks on journalists.

But ensuring a free Internet is also important. While authoritarian countries like China are lobbying to revise internet governance to give national governments greater say, Simon argues that it’s vital to uphold the current multi-stakeholder model of internet governance which includes civil society organizations, along with internet companies and governments with a history of supporting free expression. He argues that journalists and media organizations need to become more directly involved in this debate, and to advocate for the preservation of a free Internet.

Governments also need to curtail their internet surveillance activities. These activities, even if conducted in the name of security, undermine the credibility of democratic governments. Moreover, they endanger journalists and their sources, thereby impeding news gathering and reporting. At the same time, governments need to extend stronger protections to whistle-blowers, and ensure that leak investigations don’t interfere with journalistic activities.

Respecting free speech and curtailing censorship is of course vital. Some have argued that this should be tackled at the international level, for instance by strengthening international treaties or modifying conventions to specify human rights protections for journalists. Simon cautions against that approach. There’s a well-organized alliance of countries that would like to undermine what’s already there, and he warns that at this time “any effort to open up debate around… the conventions would probably have the opposite impact. There are countries that would use the opportunity to weaken existing protections.”

Instead, he says, the basic tools are already in place; what’s needed now is a stronger effort to enforce existing protections. “The protections themselves are not ideal but certainly adequate. The greater challenge we face is the fact that countries simply don’t abide (by them), and belligerent forces don’t abide by the existing legal framework. So the effort should be focused on ensuring greater respect for these legal principles.”

Simon and others have been working to make access to information a designated development goal, taking particular aim at having it acknowledged as such in the 2015 revision of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Although his organization has been lobbying to make that happen, he admits it’s a tough struggle and is unlikely to happen at this time. But he’s pleased that the argument is being advanced, and thinks the message is gradually being heard. “We certainly got some traction… access to information is essential to being able to address all these global challenges, from disease to development to environmental issues to climate change. A lot of that depends on the ability of people around the world to access independent information.”

Part of what’s needed, he argues, is the formation of a “grand coalition” around freedom of expression, bringing together all the individuals, groups and organizations that recognize the need for it.

“Information has become this shared global resource, (but) the distribution of independent information is very inequitable. Certain people in certain parts of the world have access and some don’t. The ability to access information is essential for people to be empowered… there are so many powerful forces within global society that depend on the free exchange of information. The media itself is clearly behind this notion, but so is the technology community, so are governments, so are… individuals in every part of the world, especially young people who understand and perceive that their ability to access this information is a fundamental part of their rights and their identity.”

Whatever form the struggle takes, Simon is adamant that people around the world — including journalists, however reticent they feel about taking sides and doing advocacy — need to get involved in the movement to protect freedom of expression. “This has been the defining battle of our age, and the technology has brought this to the fore. But ultimately it won’t be determined by technology. Technology is a double-edged sword. You can use technology to break down walls, but governments are also using technology more and more effectively… we’re engaged in a power struggle right now over who controls this information. I’m not sure who’s going to prevail. I think the outcome will depend on our ability to engage people and institutions to fight for this right.”

Simon intends to be a part of that fight. And he feels the broad and positive reception his book has received reflects the strong public demand for freedom of expression.

“This is really about the fundamental ability of people everywhere to participate fully in the information revolution brought about by this technological revolution. People are engaged in this, and they understand what’s at stake.”