In the words of UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, “telling the truth comes at a price.” In just the first nine months of this year, 39 journalists were killed. This number is low in comparison to the rest of the last decade, but journalists still face threats and violence despite their special status. Al Jazeera notes, “journalists practicing self-censorship in reaction to widespread threats could also be a factor.”
Intimidation, threats, and violence directed toward journalists led UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call for their protection on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. He noted that many of those who killed or otherwise harmed journalists have escaped prosecution. The work of journalists is more important now than ever. The turbulence of this year around the world, from large-scale protests to pandemic response, requires honest reporting. The Dhaka Tribune reports that the Secretary-General compared misinformation online to the spread of a pandemic, an especially timely metaphor.
A new report by details the threats and intimidation many journalists faced in 2020 for covering protests across the globe and the COVID-19 pandemic. The report found “[female journalists] are particularly targeted by offline and online gender-based attacks putting their safety at risk – these attacks can range from harassment, trolling and doxxing to physical and sexual assault.”
Online harassment is a genuine problem for journalists, many of whom must have a large online presence because of the nature of their work. Users can hide behind anonymous accounts and use intimidation and threats to try to frighten journalists into giving up or backing down. Doxxing, or the exposure of someone’s personal information, is also a significant issue. It is impossible to feel safe when the threats involve information such as the address or names of family members.
Physical violence against journalists continues to be a problem. This year saw protests in many countries, including the United States, Nigeria, Poland, and Serbia. Balkan Insight reports that even after their journalists identified themselves as journalists, many were still beaten and tear-gassed by police and protesters while reporting on the protests that broke out in Belgrade in July. The protests were in response to the installation of a curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Unsafe for Scrutiny report published by The Foreign Policy Centre details how legal means have been taken to silence journalists. The report focused on journalists who report on financial misconduct, many of whom were harassed and threatened during their investigations. Harassment, threats, and legal action interfere with journalists’ ability to do their job.
Legal proceedings and legal threats are often used as a way to intimidate journalists into backing down. As noted by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, “[legal threats] seek to exploit a skewed balance of power between often-underfunded reporting enterprises and the legal might of attorneys hired by the world’s wealthiest people and corporations.”
Legal threats are an especially nefarious kind of intimidation because they silence journalists and rely on power imbalances to uphold the status quo. It is the preferred tactic of white-collar criminals and those committing financial crimes. This tactic is seen throughout the world and is often dismissed, but it causes significant harm to the integrity of reporting and freedom of information. Many journalists are even forced to give up on this kind of investigative journalism altogether because of how damaging these lawsuits and exhaustive legal proceedings can be to their careers.
Protecting journalists means not just protecting their lives but also protecting the integrity of their work and recognizing its value. We need journalism now more than ever to combat the stream of misinformation online and find real answers during uncertain times, tactics such as legal threats and harassment endanger their reporting.