Today marks World Press Freedom Day. It comes at a time when press freedom has been declining around the world for over a decade, with COVID-19 further being exploited as a pretext to stifle critical reporting and with the safety of journalists worsening year after year.
Since the pandemic started, about 32 countries have enacted emergency laws, policies or regulations to curtail freedom of expression – restrictive responses to tackle COVID-19 disinformation that have also been used to fan anti-media rhetoric and charge journalists for reporting on their country’s response to the global health crisis. The International Press Institute reports that there have been 473 media freedom violations since the beginning of the pandemic.
While this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme of ‘journalism under surveillance’ puts the spotlight on new forms of censorship in a digital era, it is important to acknowledge that journalists continue to face grave threats offline, often ending in tragic circumstances. Last month, for instance, the Press Emblem Campaign reported an alarming 153 per cent increase – with 38 victims – in the killing of journalists in the first three months of 2022, compared to 15 deaths in the same period last year.
For more than 35 years, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has tirelessly worked at the forefront of the struggle for an independent press, the safety of journalists and the freedom of expression. The organisation’s convictions, rooted in its rich media and legal expertise, remain as firm as ever before in the face of existing and emerging threats to press freedom, which it believes is a crucial building block of free, fair and informed societies.
In this piece, the Foundation highlights its ongoing efforts to support media freedom and independent journalism around the world.
1. Legal Network for Journalists at Risk
In response to the ongoing deterioration of media freedoms during the pandemic, the Foundation has launched a new Legal Network for Journalists at Risk – a joint initiative in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Media Defence.
The network comprises 15 organisations and strategically coordinates various types of legal support to enable journalists and independent media outlets to continue to cover public interest stories and hold power to account without fear of retribution.
Assistance being offered through the network ranges from urgent legal representation to ongoing help for the duration of a case, to systemic support to improve the legal environment in which the media operates. The network also produces practical legal tools that can help journalists navigate the complexities arising from an ongoing ‘weaponisation’ of the law, which sees legal measures being introduced and used against them.
2. Support for Independent Media
Around the world, media outlets are grappling with the need to operate online, raise alternative funding and produce content that is verified, balanced and engaging. Our work in providing support to enhance their distribution and financial models, whilst improving the quality of journalism and understanding of their audiences, has never been more needed.
This approach is particularly critical in Eastern Europe, where nationalist narratives are straining the legitimacy of independent media. We have continued to offer steady support to dozens of independent media organisations through our Baltics Independent Media initiative and Eastern Partnerships programme to help build resilience to mis- and disinformation and economic turbulence.
In addition, since the start of the Ukraine crisis, the Foundation has been facilitating financial support to independent news outlets to help them maintain their operations without disruption as the emergency continues to unfold on the ground.
3. Combining our legal and media expertise
Since 2020, the Foundation built on its unique combination of legal and media offerings to amplify its impact. As part of the Baltic Independent Media initiative, we worked with the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence to produce comparative legal research on the legislative frameworks for media freedom and freedom of speech in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Following the completion of this research, we ran a series of workshops for independent media in each country to help outlets in the Baltics better understand how media legislation could impact on their work.
Through TrustLaw, our global pro bono network, we facilitated pro bono legal support for Article 19, an NGO focused on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and information worldwide. It is advocating for the removal of a provision in the French Global Security Bill that aims to prohibit the publication of any photo or footage that identifies police in an ill-intentioned way. The legal team produced a comparative analysis of legal frameworks applicable to media freedom and freedom of speech across a select number of the relevant countries. Article 19 has used the findings to argue that the new provision will curtail media freedom and has asked the French government to withdraw it.
4. Practical legal tools to counter harassment
From impersonation accounts to hateful slurs and death threats, journalists around the world are facing increasing levels of abuse. The consequences are significant, ranging from psychological and even physical harm, to preventing their work and effectively silencing their reporting.
In response to this surge of attacks, we have partnered with UNESCO, the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute to develop a range of practical and legal tools for journalists, media managers and newsrooms to strengthen responses to online and offline harassment and to protect free and independent media.
The ‘Practical Guide for Women Journalists on How to Respond to Online Harassment’ and our guidelines and checklist on ‘Gender-Sensitive Safety Policies for Newsrooms’ address the challenges experienced by reporters and media workers in a climate where nearly three-quarters of women journalists surveyed say they have experienced online abuse. The ‘Online Attacks Against Journalists: Know Your Rights’ guide provides those targeted with specific legal tools to deal with online harassment and covers the legal rights of journalists across 13 countries.
5. Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism
Since 2009, we have supported and hosted the Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism. Named in honour of American journalist Kurt Schork, who was killed in Sierra Leone while on assignment for Reuters in 2000, the three annual awards recognise the courageousness of freelance journalists, local reporters and news fixers who are reporting on conflict, corruption, human rights transgressions and other related issues.
Applications for the 2022 Kurt Schork Awards are open until Tuesday, 31 May. The three winners will each receive a prize of US $5,000. See here for details on the entry requirements and how to apply.
6. Media Freedom Coalition
Selected by the UK government, the Foundation has been managing the Secretariat of the Media Freedom Coalition – a partnership of 50 countries working together to advocate for media freedom and the safety of journalists. We support the coalition, in particular the co-chairs (Canada and the Netherlands), in coordinating activities among members aimed at defending media freedom around the world.
7. TRFilter: A new online harassment manager
While the internet has enabled journalists to report from around the world in real time, it has also exposed them to a barrage of online abuse, especially when reporting on politicised or contentious issues. The threats loom larger for women.
In partnership with Google’s Jigsaw unit, we collaborated with journalists, activists and non-governmental organisations to explore how pioneering technology could reduce the impact of gender-based online violence. Together, we developed TRFilter, a web-based application that limits journalists’ exposure to abusive content, allowing them to block, mute or save comments at scale. It also allows the users to create reports to store or share with third parties as needed. Register now to be the first to know when the tool is available to use.
8. Convening initiatives
We regularly bring together media practitioners, lawyers, academics and media freedom non-profits to provide practical collaborative opportunities – including partnerships, networks and events – to share best practice and develop solutions to strengthen media freedom.
More recently, last month we hosted two panel discussions at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. The first session focused on using the law to protect journalists at risk, and the other on safeguarding the editorial independence of news outlets in an era of declining revenues.
Today, we will participate in the UNESCO Global Conference for the celebration of World Press Freedom Day to discuss effective tools to counter gender-based online violence and spotlight TRFilter – a tangible solution to reduce the impact of online abuse on journalists.
These projects represent only a handful of activities being delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in support of independent press and journalism. To read about the full spectrum of the Foundation’s work in this area, please visit its organisational overview.