Umar Cheema, a Pakistani journalist, wrote often about the military. Then one night masked men hauled him from his car and during six hours of torture, sexual humiliation, and threats, they made it clear that the reporting should stop. Cheema not only refused to stop writing, he went public with his ordeal. “I wanted to send a message that I had not cowed down,” Cheema said of his response to the 2010 assault. “I did nothing wrong, and that kept me strong.” The Committee to Protect Journalists awarded him its International Press Freedom Award in 2011.
The assault spurred him on to do more reporting, and, in December 2012, he launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan. To mark the opening, he published a list of members of Parliament who paid no taxes and ignited a political firestorm. Despite his success in unearthing wrongdoing and corruption–some might even say because of it–Cheema has few powerful domestic allies or financial backers to develop his work.
There are Umar Cheemas in most countries, ferreting out land titles, company accounts, and public records, in an effort to hold governments and businesses accountable and serve the public interest. But many are under-funded and exposed. They are harassed, threatened, or lose their jobs. An increasing number are imprisoned, and many are simply murdered.
Their work and the broader role of journalists and media organizations as a voice for the poor and powerless, a provider of information and ideas, a forum for politics and culture, and an engine of change is acknowledged by economists and political scientists as vital to economic development and democracy.
But multilateral institutions from the United Nations to the World Bank, along with individual Western donor nations and agencies, have a mixed record in providing the sustained support, protection, and investment that journalists in repressive or impoverished countries or regions require. At the dawn of this millennium, world leaders vowed to improve the health and welfare of much of humanity by 2015 and agreed on eight goals for doing so. Press freedom was not among them. Neither were democratic governance and accountability, which press freedom underpins.
The UN Millennium Development Goals are credited by some economists with helping mobilize support for overseas development aid, which rose sharply between 2001 and the financial crash of 2008. The increase contributed to lifting about 500 million people out of extreme poverty, although some economists argue that the economic rise of China was as much a factor in this success as a surge in aid.
Whatever their achievements, the eight goals have been overtaken, not least by the explosion in communication technology, and no longer fully address peoples’ aspirations. According to the UN’s own poll of more than half a million people worldwide in 2013, citizens want the UN to focus on promoting open and responsive government, which they ranked as a priority behind only food and health care.
Keeping politicians, government officials, and business people honest, however, is no easy task, especially in poor countries where institutions, civil society and the rule of law are weak. The role of journalists and bloggers empowered by new technologies in helping to improve the lives of ordinary citizens has never been clearer, and the price that some of them pay in terms of their own lives or liberty has never been higher. International and regional institutions that promote economic development or security are increasingly aware of the role of journalists as defenders of human rights, vital to promoting transparent and accountable government.
This awareness surfaced in a UN-commissioned report by 27 prominent political leaders and experts that freedom of expression advocates welcomed as an opportunity to put press freedom on the UN agenda.
The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda published in May 2013 lays out ways to end extreme poverty. The report, titled “A New Global Partnership: eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development,” has as one of its recommended goals the promotion of “good governance and effective institutions.” To reach that goal the leaders identify two necessary conditions: “ensure that people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information,” and “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data.”
“This report is hugely welcome,” writes James Deane, director of policy and learning at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity. “It presents a fresh, ambitious agenda that provides a comprehensive framework for meeting a set of immense development challenges. It does so by putting issues of governance and rights–including freedom of the media–at its heart, not its periphery. That has not happened before.”
The panel, which was headed by British Prime Minister David Cameron and Presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, also called for a “data revolution” for citizens to access information and statistics and for governments to make them available. “I’m excited that we have expanded the boundaries,” said the report’s lead author, Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution. “The press has an extremely important role to play … in holding authorities and private companies accountable,” he told CPJ.
That a free press and democratic governance go hand in hand is now well established in the development community. But it was not always so, as made evident by the glaring omissions in the first set of UN goals in 2000.
The World Bank started considering press freedom in its assessments in the 1990s. “We showed that corruption mattered for economic development,” said economist Daniel Kaufmann, president of the Revenue Watch Institute, who used to work at the World Bank in several capacities, including as lead economist.
However, over the years, a number of authoritarian countries have become uneasy with the bank’s focus on governance. Kaufmann added that there has been “pushback” by economically powerful states unsympathetic to policies that promote press freedom and accountability, and that, he said, has made implementing a global policy difficult.
Reporters rely on institutional support to do the kinds of watchdog journalism that keep democracy healthy. These conditions include rule of law, functioning state institutions, an independent judiciary, access to information, and strong civil society groups.
Some of these elements were present in a few Eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and press freedom and governance made important strides in both countries. After Indonesia shook off the yoke of President Suharto, the press played an important role in nudging the country toward greater democracy.
This was also true in post-apartheid South Africa. Since Nelson Mandela left office, however, some officials and business people have sought to cover up corruption or incompetence, and media groups and human rights activists have had to push back against threats of encroachment on free expression and access to information.
“Many newly free or newly democratic states celebrate freedom of the media, often because brave reporting helped them to become free,” South African editor Brendan Boyle told CPJ. “But many of those same states and governments turn against the same reporters and media when the reality of transforming their societies starts to bite and the media report on their failings.”
As editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London, Boyle had a pair of young reporters investigate corruption and mismanagement in South Africa’s school hostels. Education is a prime sector of the Millennium Development Goals strategy. His reporters won the CNN Africa Journalist Award for 2013. “The reports led to some improvements but also saw the newspaper banned this month from covering the annual year-end examinations for school leavers,” Boyle, who has since become executive editor of South Africa’s Sunday Times, added.
For decades, authoritarian leaders of emerging economies have tried to promote “development journalism,” that is, insisting journalists accentuate positive news in the name of economic advancement. This has become prevalent in Africa, where China’s growing economic and political clout has spilled over to journalism. Autocrats from Gambia to Ethiopia laud their own versions of a Chinese media development model, arguing that critical or “socially irresponsible” journalism and pesky investigative reporting hurt the economy, undermine stability, and deter foreign investors. The Ugandan Parliament still has a bill before it that could criminalize reporting that the authorities deem “economic sabotage.”
This false choice between development and press freedom has been pedaled by autocrats throughout much of the life of the millennium goals. The High-Level Panel’s report explodes that argument by placing democratic governance at the core of any anti-poverty drive and recognizing the role of a free press in achieving it.
“Making media freedom a formal measure of good governance with potential links to the assessment of investment risk would not only help to protect reporters and publications but to protect societies from governments unable or unwilling to protect and to serve their people,” Boyle said.
Challenging the economy-versus-rights narrative can be dangerous and underlines the need for a comprehensive international approach to defend journalists. The figures speak for themselves: more journalists were behind bars in 2012–some 232 worldwide–than at any time since CPJ began counting them in 1990. In the past 15 years, the trend line for journalists killed for their work has been rising, averaging more than 47 deaths per year.
Significantly, the ability or willingness of states to prosecute those who murder journalists and other advocates of civil liberties is lacking. CPJ’s global Impunity Index shows that hundreds of murder cases involving journalists remain unprosecuted and that more than a quarter of those killed were covering corruption. Threatened with harm, and unprotected by the authorities, many reporters have simply fled. The number of journalists in exile, whether from fear of persecution or imprisonment in Sri Lanka or Ethiopia, or fear of being killed in Syria or Somalia, is growing.
Despite some success stories in countries that have shaken off autocratic rule, the overall environment for critical journalism has not improved in recent years. Freedom House, the Washington foundation that promotes democracy, publishes a global press freedom index which, if averaged out, has flat-lined since the mid-1990s. The percentage of countries that Freedom House deems free dropped to 35 from 39 in the decade after 2000.
“Essentially the past decade or more has been a decade lost in terms of media freedom around the world,” said Kaufmann, the economist.
The reasons for the decline in press freedom and the rise in deaths and imprisonment of journalists are complex. It is an area that needs more rigorous academic analysis and better diagnostics, according to media development experts interviewed for this article.
Technology has enabled journalists and bloggers to self-publish, but authoritarian governments have quickly learned how to turn the same technology into a tool for censoring and tracking critical reporters. The cost of entry into the news business has been lowered to the point that anyone with a smartphone can be a reporter and publisher. This has dramatically increased the number of people who are able to report events, particularly in conflict zones and repressive environments, thereby increasing the number of reporters who get into trouble.
Journalists themselves and media development groups have pushed the United Nations to do more to protect reporters, starting in 2006 with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1738, which underlined the civilian status of and protections due to reporters covering conflict. Since then, these groups have urged the UN to incorporate the protection of journalists into its broader work.
In May 2013, this bore fruit in the form of a U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The plan calls for a new U.N. inter-agency mechanism to assess journalist safety, for greater powers for the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and for assistance to member states in passing national legislation to prosecute the killers of journalists. It envisions partnerships between the UN and media safety groups along with global awareness campaigns. It also calls for development of emergency response procedures for journalists in the field and provisions for press safety in conflict zones.
But even this victory was hard won and shows the enormous obstacles that have to be overcome in a multinational body in which member states suspicious of an independent news media have influence. The adoption of the plan was in doubt for some time after Pakistan, India, and Brazil, all of which have long histories of high levels of violence against journalists, objected to certain provisions. After pressure from CPJ and others, Brazil relented and backed the plan.
Champions of freedom of expression are now girding for what will doubtless be a hard battle to shepherd the High-Level Panel’s press freedom goal through the political wrangling of the UN and into the final framework. The panel’s 12 goals and 54 related national targets are just one of several reports that will land on the desk of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by the end of 2014. He will synthesize them into one report, which will be the starting point for inter-governmental politicking that will culminate in a special September 2015 summit to agree on the final document.
“I don’t want to be too simplistic but, on the issue of press freedom, countries that oppose press freedom in their own country are going to be our main spoilers on this agenda,” a U.K. diplomat at the country’s UN mission in New York who follows the issue told CPJ.
Jan Lublinski, a research and development manager at DW Akademie, a media development agency affiliated with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, agrees. “It will not be easy to convince authoritarian regimes to commit to such an agenda,” he told CPJ.
Lublinski and his colleagues have already begun speculating on what form the framework could take. “It may be easier to define and agree upon a new set of development goals without explicit mention of freedom of expression, information rights and the media,” they wrote in a discussion paper. “But such a choice would also mean avoiding an answer to the challenges the world faces today. A new MDG”–Millennium Development Goals–”agenda that focuses on poverty, health, environment, gender equality, and education only, would neglect essential elements of the human rights as well as governance processes with all their potential influence on other development sectors.”
Kharas, the High-Level Panel report’s lead author, thinks it’s too early to speculate on the likely language of the final document. He suggests supporters not only argue for the effectiveness of press freedom as an instrument of economic development but also stress that freedom of expression is a basic human right as guaranteed by the UN’s own founding principles and enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Guy Berger, director of UNESCO’s freedom of expression unit, echoes the human rights argument. “If press freedom is not ultimately recognized in the 2015 agenda, it would be a missed opportunity for a human-rights centered, richly rounded and practically effective understanding of development,” he told CPJ. “In fact, the recognition of the important role of free media in the report is much greater than that of the Internet and ICTs,” he said, referring to information and communications technologies. “By treating development as a human, not technology-driven, process, the issue of rights is inseparable from the concept of development.”
This point that press freedom is a basic human right sometimes gets lost in the diplomatic maneuvering and contortions over wording behind UN agreements, but it is one that journalists and their allies will need to make. “This is the time for advocacy,” the U.K. diplomat at the UN said. “I think that it is one of the more controversial components of this report and has absolutely no guarantee to get into the final framework. … If we want it in the final framework, we and other likeminded member states and civil society organizations are going to need to fight pretty forcefully for its inclusion.”
Whatever document is eventually drafted in New York, reporters like Umar Cheema will continue to probe the dark corners of Pakistani society, often with minimal resources and protection from the state, because that’s what reporters do.
“I still feel the power of truth, and it keeps me moving now. I try to be more and more objective, and when you are objective, half of your fear is gone,” he said, knowing that many courageous journalists have been silenced in recent years–for good.
Robert Mahoney is CPJ’s deputy director. He has worked as a reporter, editor, and bureau chief for Reuters throughout the world. Mahoney has led CPJ missions to global hot spots from Iraq to Sri Lanka.