The last month has witnessed a variety of attacks on the free press – including what was seen as a state-sponsored hijacking – by governments going to great lengths to punish journalists for their work.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 439 journalists were imprisoned as early June, up from 430 at the time of my last article a month ago. In addition to this number, Benjamin Morales Hernandez was “disappeared” in Mexico on May 2.

His body was found the following morning with several gunshot wounds and a message whose contents have not yet been revealed. He was the 13th journalist to be murdered this year.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

At least 13 Palestinian journalists were detained by Israeli security forces during the 11 days of recent clashes. Israel also bombed the offices of at least 18 news outlets, in one case levelling the building that housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. Israeli authorities said Hamas was operating out of the building but provided no evidence.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also documented numerous instances of Israeli journalists being harassed and assaulted while covering right-wing protests and demonstrations that led to violence against Palestinians within Israel.

After a bomb threat was supposedly e-mailed to the airline, a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in the Belarus capital of Minsk while being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet. When the plane landed, Roman Protasevich, an independent journalist and activist, was arrested. He was the editor of NEXTA, an independent news outlet, which publicised the massive protests in Belarus following the country’s 2020 election.

That election saw Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been termed “Europe’s Last Dictator” returned to power in what many governments see as a sham. It drew thousands of protesters onto the streets.

Protasevich had been living in Lithuania for fear he would be imprisoned in Belarus after he was charged as a “terrorist” last November. The diversion of the plane was seen as a state sponsored hijacking undertaken for the sole purpose of arresting a journalist speaking out against the government of his country.

In Myanmar the junta continued its crackdown on the press, unabashed. Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporter Min Nyo was sentenced to three years in prison on May 12 under Article 505(a) of the penal code. This article makes it illegal to disseminate “fake news” that could agitate security forces. Nyo was arrested in early March while covering anti-military protests and was beaten by the police and seriously injured, according to a statement from the DVB.

This was followed by the arrest of Nathan Maung and Hanthat Nyein of the news website Kamayut Media. Like Nyo, they were charged under Article 505 (a). The two reporters were arrested after a raid on the offices of Kamayut Media for covering anti-coup protests. Nathan Maung is a US citizen.

Danny Fenster, also a US citizen and the editor of Frontier Myanmar, was arrested at Yangon International Airport before he could board a US-bound flight to visit family. This arrest was also connected to coverage of the ongoing anti-coup protests. Fenster has not been heard from since his arrest.

On June 2, Aung Kyaw, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, and freelance journalist Zaw Zaw were both sentenced to two years in jail after being charged under Article 505(a). They were arrested while covering anti-coup protests. According to Reporters Without Borders, a total of 86 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar since the coup on February 1, of whom 49 are still in detention. Myanmar’s security forces have killed at least 840 protesters, according to United Nations records.

Bangladesh is still arresting and charging journalists for uncovering government corruption over the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. Rozina Islam was arrested in May while visiting the health ministry. She was accused of stealing official documents and photographing confidential data on her phone, and could face the death penalty if convicted of the most serious charges.

Rozina had gone to the ministry to interview an employee, but was locked in a room by police upon her arrival and staff took her phone and bag. She was held for five hours before being handed over to police, giving authorities plenty of time to plant the evidence on her phone and in her bag, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The move to arrest Rozina is seen as retaliation for her reporting on alleged corruption in the health department in handling Covid-19.

Claudia Mo. Photo: Claudia Mo, via Facebook.

In Hong Kong, the High Court said it had denied bail to pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo after her encrypted communications with foreign journalists from the BBC, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were discovered. Police had seized her phone and computer back in January when she was detained as part of a group of 53 pro-democracy activists arrested for their participation in primary elections last year. In hacking into her accounts, the communications were uncovered.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, prosecutors alleged that Mo was “misleading the international press” and had referred on numerous occasions to the “desperation and loss of human rights and freedom” in Hong Kong.

In the United States news broke that the Justice Department under President Trump had secretly obtained the phone records and tried to obtain the emails of two current reporters and one former reporter from the Washington Post, and had obtained both the phone records and emails from a CNN reporter. The records in all cases were from 2017.

Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous of the Washington Post had been working on stories about Russia’s role in the 2016 elections, and Barbara Starr of CNN had been reporting on military matters related to North Korea, actions in Syria and American combat deaths in Afghanistan.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

The Department of Justice told the journalists they were not the target of the investigation, rather it was trying to discover who had provided them with the information. But the response of the US government was markedly different from that of Hong Kong. President Joe Biden, when asked by a reporter about the incidents, called the practice “simply wrong” and stated that he would not let his Department of Justice use the same tactics.

These brazen moves by world leaders have had a chilling effect on journalists and those who work to secure freedom of the press and free speech around the world. Until authoritarian leaders face graver consequences for their actions than mere words or ineffective sanctions, these attacks will continue.

A free press is a global need as the people of the world and the policies of individual governments become more and more interconnected. The truth is still needed, and those who work to reveal it should not be penalised.

While some world leaders have taken steps to shore up freedom of the press, more must be done to force others to do the same to ensure the global citizenry knows the truth.


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Robert Gerhardt

Robert Gerhardt is a freelance photographer and writer currently based in New York. He is a member of the National Press Photographers Association in the United States, and an absentee member of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Hong Kong.