Crime, Corruption, and the King’s Dog: Risky Topics for Global Media

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A journalist documents the February 2014 clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.  

The dangers of reporting on national security and terrorism are well documented, but journalists can also face violence or imprisonment for covering an array of other high-risk topics.

  • Organized crime: From Central America to South Asia, journalists take their lives in their hands when they investigate organized crime. The danger is particularly pronounced in areas with weak rule of law, where journalists have inadequate protections and perpetrators enjoy impunity. In a shocking case in Mexico, the body of José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, a journalist known for denouncing organized crime and the failure of local authorities to address it, was found dismembered and decapitated in Veracruz State in January 2015. In the Brazilian state of Minas Garais, the body of Evany José Metzker, known for investigating local drug trafficking and child prostitution, was found tortured and decapitated in May 2015.
  • Corruption: Reporting on corruption in business or government places journalists at risk for harassment and violence in virtually every region of the world. Brazilian radio host Gleydson Carvalho, known for his commentary about corrupt local officials, was shot dead while on air in August 2015. Journalists covering high-level corruption in countries including Angola and Azerbaijan face harsh legal repercussions, and many governments continue to obstruct reporting through measures ranging from gag orders to threats. Even in democracies where freedom of expression is typically respected, coverage of the topic can elicit heavy-handed reactions. In Luxembourg, an investigative journalist and two whistle-blowers currently face prosecution for exposing favorable tax deals between the government and major multinational corporations. Although the defendants will enjoy the benefits of an independent judicial system, the case has underscored the global extent of journalists’ vulnerability when covering corruption.
  • Environment and land development: Investigating stories related to the environment, particularly when land acquisitions or extractive industries are involved, poses great danger to reporters. In India, two journalists who covered illegal mining and land grabs were killed in June 2015: Sandeep Kothari, whose body was found burned and heavily bruised after he was abducted by unknown assailants, and Jagendra Singh, who died from burns allegedly inflicted by local police. In countries ranging from Honduras and Peru to Cambodia and the Philippines, environmental reporters are routinely subjected to harassment and threats in the field—conditions that often follow them home in the form of retaliation for their published stories.
  • Religion: Laws against blasphemy are actively used to muzzle journalists, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. The offense is punishable by harsh fines and imprisonment in many countries, and even carries the possibility of capital punishment in some places. In one high-profile case in January 2015, Saudi authorities began carrying out a sentence of 1,000 lashes against Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist charged with insulting Islam. Coverage of sensitive religious topics can also lead to extralegal reprisals by extremist groups. In Bangladesh, a number of bloggers who wrote on religious issues and criticized fundamentalists have been hacked to death in recent years in a series of attacks by militants with alleged ties to terrorist groups.
  • Disputed sovereignty: When questions of autonomy and self-determination are in play, entire parts of the world can become off-limits for journalism, in terms of both physical access and topical coverage. After a German newspaper quoted Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla referring to Western Sahara as “occupied” in November 2015, Moroccan officials charged the journalist with “undermining national territorial integrity,” an offense for which he could be imprisoned for up to five years. Russian authorities are similarly quick to punish coverage of Crimea that goes against the official line, while separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions continue to suppress independent reporting in the territory they control. In China, genuine autonomy for Tibet and the rights of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang remain forbidden topics, and administrative restrictions—including on travel—limit the outflow of information from these areas.
  • Lèse-majesté and beyond: Laws against insulting the state or top officials exist in several countries, and some leaders do not hesitate to invoke them against critical journalists or social-media users. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for example, have lengthy records of pursuing insult charges against journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens. Turkish authorities have gone so far as to prosecute a doctor who, in an image shared online, compared the president to the character Gollum from the film series The Lord of the Rings. Erdoğan was even successful in demanding that a comedian in Germany be prosecuted for reciting a satirical poem about him. Last month, the German chancellery allowed prosecutors to pursue the case under archaic legislation against insulting foreign rulers, while also promising to repeal the law in question. In a similarly absurd case in Thailand, a man was arrested in December 2015 on lèse-majesté charges—which are aggressively applied to a wide variety of activities in the country—for posting a humorous comment about the king’s dog online.

For more on media freedom around the world, see Freedom House’s latest report, Freedom of the Press 2016.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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