What does press freedom mean to you? Five Writers Respond

Media Read

We asked five writers from around the globe to reflect on World Press Freedom Day.

World Press Freedom Day was established by the United Nations to celebrate the right to freely impart and receive information. Without it, there is no freedom of expression, the universal human right that secures all other rights. The day’s purpose could hardly be more timely:

May 3 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

Today, freedom of the press is as important as ever but under increasing threat. It is the freedom to uncover corruption, overturn autocracies, expose atrocities, and demand civil rights. It is also, inextricably, the freedom to be disagreeable. As a result, it has made some enemies.

A free press is not tame. It’s messy, unpredictable, vexing, and yet absolutely vital, both for the independent publishers on our platform and for a healthy society more broadly. To appreciate what’s at stake, we have asked five Substack writers from around the world to reflect on what this freedom means to them.

The essays below appear unaltered by us and contain views we might disagree with. But that, after all, is the point.

Rana Ayyub, Rana Ayyub’s Newsletter

Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. She was previously an editor with Tehelka, an investigative magazine in India. She has reported on religious violence, extrajudicial killings by the state, and insurgency.

The last six months have been perhaps the most difficult time of my life; a living, breathing nightmare. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has led the worst kind of witch hunt against me and my family, smearing me in the right-wing press and threatening me with imprisonment on baseless, easily disproven charges. In March, officials waylaid me at the airport and kept me from boarding my flight out of the country; I was on my way to speak at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia about the dangers of curtailing press freedom. Ironic, isn’t it?

India’s High Court ordered that I be allowed to travel, and I delivered the keynote speech in Perugia after yet more harassment. The Indian authorities have agreed to hear a group accusing me of money laundering, an increasingly common charge against opposition leaders and critics of the government. The charges were filed by a Hindu supremacist group that encourages people to fight for the “Hindu cause.” Government spokespeople have often called my work irrelevant, but they have also used their connections in right-wing media to publish malicious propaganda and straightforward lies about me, often dominating headlines for days at a time. Trolls downloaded decade-old pictures from my Instagram and used them to put my face on Indian currency notes; a meme version of the false accusations.

Purely because I belong to the Muslim minority in India, most of my critical journalism and commentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi is considered “anti-Hindu,” so it follows that these baseless allegations come from a supremacist group that enjoys patronage from the Modi government. In fact, not only is it unsurprising, it is not even unique. I have withstood a barrage of these cases since May 2021, soon after Time magazine published my cover story on the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. The Prime Minister of India, I argued, had to be held accountable for his part in the mismanagement of the pandemic.

On World Press Freedom day, it is important to remind ourselves that we, journalists, are often the enemies of our respective states. Our world is increasingly dominated by dictators and fascists. In the history of the world and of journalism, never has the profession been under as much scrutiny as it is today, especially while “neutrality” becomes less virtuous and more closely associated with false equivalence and both-sideism in the face of dictatorship. The question of where we as journalists can responsibly position ourselves is a haunting one. Our moral compasses are being crucially tested. Are we “objective?” Should we be?

In India, some of my brave colleagues, like Siddique Kappan, have been behind bars for more than two years, simply for speaking and reporting the truth. Today, let us acknowledge our position of privilege, as journalists and public figures who are widely read and influential. Let us use those privileges to speak for those who do not have a public voice. I truly hope that independent journalism survives this onslaught against it. Some day, I believe the truth and free press will triumph. Let that day come soon.

Nikita Petrov, Psychopolitica

Nikita Petrov is a Russian psychedelic writer and artist, and podcaster who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Nikita is also the Creative Director of The Glenn Show.

War, Mediated

I left Russia—“fled” might be more accurate—in the immediate aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine.

There were practical reasons for that: I didn’t want to risk entrapment if the border got closed from the inside; I couldn’t continue receiving my salary because of the Western sanctions; I was at some risk of political prosecution, having been a part of the pro-democracy movement and having made public statements against the war. By the new laws, even calling the war “a war,” as opposed to “a special military operation,” is illegal and, in the worst circumstances (theoretically, so far), punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

But what hit me the most psychologically were the big Zs I occasionally saw taped to rear windows of passing cars; the pictures of kids in schools and kindergartens (and hospices!) that were coerced into forming Zs with their bodies; and, closest to home, hearing from friends whose parents started to call them “traitors” for not supporting the “operation.”

At closer inspection, this generational divide—between 30 year-olds shocked by the war and their parents shocked by their children’s opposition to it—appears to be a divide over media. Those whose parents don’t have a habit of running TV in the background are not, by and large, facing this problem. (This is likely to change, as independent online publications, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are now only accessible through VPN.)

Gaining monopoly over TV was one of Putin’s earliest goals. He started to move on it in the first months of his reign (I was 11) and reached it long before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

This monopoly allowed him to create a parallel world for much of the Russian population. In it, Ukraine has been taken over by Nazis, who are in turn controlled by the US; the Russian army is greeted as saviors by the people of Donbas; Russia is only attacking military targets; and if we didn’t strike first, we’d be invaded ourselves.

TV watchers don’t see civilians, laying dead in the streets, with their hands tied behind their backs. They don’t see cities destroyed by artillery fire. What they support is not the atrocious war I am seeing on the screen of my laptop. It’s a noble, defensive fight against Nazism—the sequel to the Great Patriotic War of 1941—1945.

I don’t think free speech is facing quite the same dangers in the West as it did in Russia—no single entity seems posed to gain complete control of the narrative. But I can imagine, for instance, an emergence of a two-narrative system, which would routinely purge itself from alternative views that have less institutional support.

This is a topic for a different day—I am above my word limit already—but I’d like to invite Substack readers to reflect on it themselves.

John Berthelson, Asia Sentinel

John Berthelson is the co-founder and Editor in Chief of Asia Sentinel. He was formerly the Hong Kong Standard Managing Editor, a Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent in five countries, and a Newsweek Magazine correspondent in Vietnam. He is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and two-time Society of Publishers in Asia winner for excellence in reporting.

Press Freedom in Asia

Across Asia, the press face problems that are simply unheard of in the west. Government after government has introduced “fake news” laws including Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore and others to go after journalists, with varying degrees of competence, with other countries including Thailand and Malaysia blocking us. In 2016, we moved our official domicile from Hong Kong to California because of the rising danger to press freedom and the possibility of legal action in the territory. We are especially sensitive in Hong Kong, where our co-founder and contributing editor, Philip Bowring, is married to Claudia Mo, a former Legislative Council member, who has been imprisoned since the police raided their home in February 2021 and confiscated all the computers in the house including Philip’s. Claudia remains in prison without a trial date on vague charges relating to sedition.  Philip’s computers have  not been returned.

When Asia Sentinel came into existence in 2006, our hope was that we could circumvent censors and cross international borders across Asia with a free press.  We have been blocked periodically in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia after writing critical stories on government corruption or rights abuses, with the result that even after full access was restored, we never were able to regain the lost circulation. At one point, after a story on massive corruption described in a lawsuit against Indonesian officials, the former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, sent two people to the house where my official address was listed with the Secretary of State’s office. They were told to bugger off.

In Malaysia, where at times we had in excess of 150,000 hits per article on massive corruption, the government blocked us in 2013 and reduced our readership to a few thousand. Eventually the government fell, at least partly because of what we and Sarawak Report were writing about scandals involving massive kickbacks on defense purchases and the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal. Once the reform government came in midway through 2018, press freedom was restored and our readership rose again, although it has never reached the levels prior to being blocked. We were blocked intermittently in Thailand after writing about the peccadillos of the king.

At that, the danger to Asia Sentinel is minimal because of our international status. Domestic journalists are regularly murdered in the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In 2009, 34 journalists were murdered along with 24 political supporters in Maguindanao on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in what the Committee to Protect Journalists called The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called “the single deadliest event for journalists in history.”

We regularly give our contributors in Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Cambodia the title “Our Correspondent” rather than a byline because of the physical or legal danger they face on publication of critical stories.

Singapore recently has put at least two domestic online publications out of existence through the government’s use of regulations promulgated through its censorship agency, with the Orwellian name the Media Development Corporation and has frightened the rest into silence.  Given our invulnerability, we are the only publication that reports fully on Singapore government repression as far as I know.

We remain unintimidated.

Chris Hedges, The Chris Hedges Report

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans for fifteen years with The New York Times. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is a best-selling author and an activist.

A society that prohibits the capacity to speak in truth extinguishes the capacity to live in justice.

Instead of news we get former military and intelligence officials, who profit from their positions on boards of defense contractors, cheerleading war.

Instead of news we get celebrity gossip and trivia.

Instead of news we get the character assassination and prolonged imprisonment of our most courageous journalist, Julian Assange.

Instead of news we get political reporting that is devoid of content and treated as if elected politics is a sporting event.

This burlesque has rendered those we should be writing about, those whose voices and suffering we should be documenting, invisible.

Where is the flood of stories about families being evicted or losing their homes because of foreclosures and bank repossessions? Where are the stories about the banks and lending agencies that prey on recent college graduates burdened with crippling loans and unable to find work? Where are the stories about families going into bankruptcy because they cannot pay medical bills and the soaring premiums of for-profit health care? Where are the stories about the despair that drives middle-aged white men to suicide and millions of Americans into the deadly embrace of opioid addiction? Where are the stories on the cruelty of mass incarceration, the collapse of our court system and the reign of terror by police in marginal communities? Where are the investigative pieces on the fraud and the tax boycott that have been legalized for Wall Street, the poisoning of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries? Why is climate change a forbidden subject, even as extreme weather devastates the nation and much of the rest of the planet? Why are the atrocities we commit or abet in the Middle East ignored? Why are the war crimes carried out by Israel against the Palestinians erased from news coverage?

We know why. The corporate seizure of the systems of information have turned the press into an echo chamber for the powerful and the rich.

Those of us who fight back have been attacked and marginalized, several of us turning to Substack to maintain our independence and our integrity.

David Hundeyin, West Africa Weekly

David is a writer, investigative journalist, and broadcaster whose work has appeared on CNN, The Africa Report, Al Jazeera, and The Washington Post. He has been nominated for the 2019 Edward Murrow International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), won the People Journalism Prize for Africa in 2020, and was named the GRC (Governance Risk Compliance) Anti FinCrime Reporter Of The Year at Nigeria’s GRC Awards.

Flying the Flag of Independent Media In Nigeria

On March 11, 2021, I found myself floating across a muddy river inside a rickety canoe contemplating the life choices that had led me to that moment. In the space of 5 months, my life had gone from a fairly comfortable existence in Africa’s largest city to becoming a fugitive with a UNHCR reference number and executing an illegal maritime border crossing from Ghana to Cote d’Ivoire while chasing a story about a young Nigerian woman who was wrongfully jailed after being set up by Ivorian police.

The story of Itunu Babalola, which I subsequently published in my newly-launched Substack publication West Africa Weekly, marked me out even further as an enemy of state in Nigeria. It got extensive television and radio coverage and it stayed in the news cycle for months, albeit to little effect. Despite my best efforts, Itunu died in detention on November 14, 2021, and by that time, I would have a target painted on my back by an incompetent but extremely vengeful Nigeria government.

Nigeria Has A Free Press Like DPRK Has Democracy

By my reckoning, no other country with Nigeria’s population size or larger, has such a pronounced absence of independent media voices. Not Russia, not Pakistan, not Mexico, not Indonesia, not Brazil, not even the Philippines. Perhaps China could be referenced, but certainly nobody would ever accuse China of being “democratic,” which Nigeria is on paper. The thing is that – on the surface – Nigeria apparently, is a “democracy” with a “free press.”

We regularly hold elections – lots and lots of the things in fact. We have a president, a federal cabinet, a bicameral legislature, 36 state governors, 36 state Houses of Assembly, and 774 local government chairs and councillors. We have a thriving private media industry. We have “separation of powers.” Our 1999 constitution names Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association as inalienable constitutional rights. We have an “Independent National Electoral Commission.” We even have a “Freedom Of Information Act.”

In the time-honoured isomorphic mimicry that is a staple of postcolonial African governance, Nigeria ticks most of the boxes to be classified as a “democracy” by most indicators. Yet on the 2021 Global Press Freedom Index, Nigeria’s rank is number 120, behind famous press freedom luminaries like Mauritania, Moldova, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. Even worse, the country somehow managed to slip 5 places from its 2020 ranking, which means that Nigeria’s press is currently enjoying freedom the way Ukraine is gratefully taking delivery of missile-shaped Russian aid.

While Nigeria’s sprawling securocracy has no problem letter-bombing journalists, attempting to kidnap dissidents from London, successfully kidnapping dissidents in Nairobi, banning Twitter for deleting a tweet that threatened genocide, and forcing ISPs to restrict access to news sites it does not approve of, these are not its main tools for bullying journalists. Its main tool in fact, remains the financial control it wields over newsrooms since it remains by some distance the largest ad spender in the country. Recently, a minor attempt at protest by Nigeria’s largest daily newspaper led to the removal of all government ad spend from that paper. About a third of the newsroom subsequently lost their jobs.

Substack, West Africa Weekly and An Unlikely Resistance

When I decided to start writing a Substack newsletter, I knew that I wanted to do more than just offer opinion, analysis and takes. Apart from the fact that I already have a BusinessDay column where I write those things 3 times a week, I knew that long-read investigative stories written for impact was a definite gap in the Nigerian media space. Due in no small part to the Nigerian government’s habitual bullying of journalism and journalists over the decades, it had become orthodox practise in Nigeria for even so-called “investigative journalism” to promise little and deliver even less. Avoiding causing offence to power was and still is the major consideration for a lot of what passes for journalism in Nigeria.

I went full speed ahead in the exact opposite direction. In my launch post on West Africa Weekly, I promised that I would tell Nigeria’s stories exactly as they are, free of deodorant and varnish. The only way to tell the truth about Nigeria, I said, was to tell it in its true form – rude, brutish, monstrous and often barely believable. Using a narrative style that remains a source of controversy in the Nigerian media space, I set about fulfilling this mission with an energy that to many is as terrifying as it is compelling.

I exposed the holder of the sole contract to print Nigerian passports as a disgraced ex-diplomat who was fired from the service for cocaine trafficking. I exposed the friendship of Nigeria’s president to a known terror kingpin, complete with a photo of them inside Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council chamber. I put together months of research to link the emergence of Boko Haram to Saudi doctrinal and financial support for Wahhabism in Nigeria.

I went to war with Nigeria’s biggest airline, Nigeria’s biggest retailer and a tech investment fund over their attempts to step on the rights of little people. I unveiled a deadly collaboration between Amnesty International’s Nigeria country director and the DSS – the same organisation of the journalist-letter-bombing fame. Most recently I dug into abuse of power and sexual impropriety at Africa’s largest tech unicorn. More striking than my choice of stories to cover was my decision to remain fiercely faithful to my stylistic roots as a millennial TV writer and my unapologetic bias in favour of human rights, facts and the little man. I have staunchly refused to bow to the weak “both-sides” method of storytelling in the case of clear human rights abuses, which I consider to be an abdication of duty as a journalist.

As popular as it is controversial, West Africa Weekly is now a uniquely influential media platform in Nigeria, and one which I am currently in the process of equipping to operate even in my absence. Some of the most consequential journalism ever done in Nigeria’s history has already appeared on this platform, and the plan is for even more of it to do so going forward. None of this would have been possible without the unique subscription and monetisation model offered by Substack, as well as the financial and editorial support offered by the Substack Local fellowship, which I am part of.

Just how far is it possible to go with this hyper-independent journalism experiment coming up against a calcified legacy space that bows to power? How much more groundbreaking journalism can West Africa Weekly produce? How many more enemies can I amass while wearing that impish grin on my face? How sustainable is independent journalism in a world that is both increasingly hostile and strongly receptive toward this concept?

I have no idea. So let’s find out together.

As published in Substack

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