Shooting the messenger

Shougat Dasgupta

 

Both Hong Kong and Russia have used national security legislation to effectively criminalize journalism. It’s a tactic other countries, including democracies like Israel and India that are constitutionally committed to a free press, have adopted. China heads the list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists of countries that detain reporters, with Russia in fourth place. Israel is fast catching up, though, with the CPJ reporting that as of April 3, at least 19 of 25 journalists who have been arrested by the Israeli authorities are still in prison. 

Frequently, these journalists are held without charge for as long as the authorities deem necessary. In India, similar rules that equate journalism with terrorism are invoked to detain journalists, in the disputed territory of Kashmir for instance, without formally charging them with a crime. In February, Aasif Sultan, the editor of a now defunct online magazine, was arrested again two days after being released from prison where he had been held without charge for five years. Pointedly, he wore a T-shirt with the words “Journalism is not a crime” emblazoned across his chest as he was led in handcuffs to another stint in arbitrary detention. 

This week, the Israeli parliament approved a temporary law that enables the government to ban foreign news networks it believes pose a threat to national security. Already, it appears, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will use the powers granted him by the new law to ban the Qatari government-funded network Al Jazeera — which Netanyahu described as a “terrorist network” — from Israel. 

Given the size of the protests against Netanyahu in Jerusalem this week, he has more pressing problems than the reporting of international journalists. But the focus on international journalists — alongside the suspicion of domestic media — is a growing trend in increasingly flawed democracies such as Israel and India, which are both sliding down global press rankings. Last month, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute published its annual democracy report, downgrading Israel from a liberal democracy for the first time in 50 years in part because of the government’s attempt to weaken institutions including the judiciary and the press. India was downgraded to an electoral autocracy in 2018 and V-Dem in this year’s report describes the country as “among the worst government offenders when it comes to increasing their efforts to censor the media.”  

V-Dem also included India in a list of 18 countries in which the “indicator for free- and fairness of elections deteriorated substantially and significantly.” With general elections in India just two weeks away, this is an alarming diagnosis. 

Both India and Israel seem closer to Russia and China in their intolerance for journalism than they do to other democracies. In Seoul last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that a “flood” of disinformation was creating “suspicion, cynicism and instability” in democracies around the world. In Israel and India, at least, the wounds appear self-inflicted.

GLOBAL NEWS

The once noisy independent media in Hong Kong has been almost completely silenced since the 2019-2020 pro-democracy protests. Last week, another alternative voice, Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the United States government, shut down its Hong Kong office after 28 years. It said a new law that came into effect on March 23 gives the authorities the power to treat journalists as national security threats. Broadcast in 10 languages, including Cantonese and Mandarin, Radio Free Asia’s news bulletins are intended to counter the Chinese state’s monopoly on news and information. Unsurprisingly, its exit was celebrated by Chinese state-sponsored news outlets, with the daily tabloid Global Times describing the broadcaster as an “anti-China agency” that had “fled in panic.”

Radio Free Asia is modeled on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a service rooted in the ideological battles of the Cold War. In February 2024, the Kremlin declared RFE/RL to be an “undesirable organization,” making it a crime to work for the station or distribute its content. But even before then, authorities found ways to go after the broadcaster’s journalists. In October 2023, RFE/RL editor Alsu Kurmasheva, who holds both Russian and American passports, was arrested on charges of not registering as a foreign agent and of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military. On April 1, a Russian court extended her pre-trial detention. Kurmasheva, like Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who has spent a full year in pre-trial detention, is one of 12 foreign-national journalists being held in Russian prisons.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia holds a “disproportionate” 12 of the 17 foreign journalists detained in prisons across the world. The overwhelming majority of detained journalists, though, are local. At the same time that media attention was turned towards Gershkovich’s continued detention without trial last week, six Russian journalists were arrested within a few hours of each other. One of the journalists, Antonina Favorskaya, was arrested as she was being released following 10 days in jail for “disobeying the police” after laying flowers at the grave of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. She now faces more serious charges of “extremist activities” related to her coverage of Navalny and has been sent to pre-trial detention at least until the end of May. With reporters being sentenced to years in prison for posts they make on social networking sites like VK (formerly VKontakte), and as many as 1,800 Russian journalists in exile, Putin’s mission to destroy independent media is making smooth progress.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • On the subject of India’s upcoming elections, Access Now and Global Witness submitted 48 advertisements to YouTube that deliberately and flagrantly violated the platform’s policies. YouTube claims to review political ads before running them but somehow signed off on every single one, including disinformation about changes to the voting age and “incitement to prevent certain groups from voting.” India, with 462 million users, is YouTube’s largest market and a vital source of information. The mind boggles.
  • Havana Syndrome is the name given to a number of mysterious symptoms that have affected U.S. diplomats and military personnel posted in various countries including India and Cuba, where the first reports of the condition surfaced around 2016. A lengthy investigation by The Insider, Der Spiegel and 60 Minutes suggests that the ailments bear “all the markings of a Russian hybrid warfare operation.” Is it, the article asks, “one of Vladmir Putin’s greatest strategic victories against the United States?”   

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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