Why 2021 Was a Watershed Year for Press Freedoms

The control tower reported to Ryanair on May 23 that a Ryanair flight had an explosive aboard. A fighter jet appeared off its wing, and Flight FR4978, en route from Greece to Lithuania, was compelled to make a sharp turn and land in Belarus. The bomb was not found. It was Roman Protasevich (a shabby journalist) who reported to his passengers that the plane had been diverted. After disembarking, the 26-year-old was led away for the crime of reporting on political opposition—exactly the sort of activity essential to the functioning of a democracy, should one ever occur in his benighted homeland.
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Openly hijacking a commercial plane to kidnap a journalist is a sign that authoritarians have reached new heights of impunity. After all, even the Saudis tried to keep Jamal Khashoggi’s fate a secret in 2018; along with a bone saw, they brought a body double.

Learn more The War on Truth and the Guardians

“It’s been a terrible year for press freedom,” says Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York City. “Governments are increasingly intolerant of criticism, of independent reporting. They either jail journalists or they prosecute them under vague and sweeping antiterrorism laws, or ‘fake news’ laws, and try to shut them down that way.”

But 2021 was also an important year for the issue. Calling free expression “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize on Oct. 8 to two journalists. Dmitry Muratov Novaya Gazeta dedicated the award to the six reporters murdered while working at one of the last independent news outlets in Vladimir Putin’s Russia; in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, co-founder of the online news site Rappler, faced down President Rodrigo Duterte while also documenting how the brutal populist was enabled by social media companies, as well as other dark forces the Internet once held the promise of keeping in check.

“It’s a battle for facts,” Ressa, who was a TIME Person of the Year in 2018, told me in October. Authoritarian regimes often jail journalists, but social media is a useful tool. Putin’s troll farms create uncertainty not only about U.S. elections but also about “the facts on the ground” in places where Russia is making military moves.

Over the 12 months the scale started to tip towards truth. There was cause to be optimistic. Australian legislators came to the rescue of news organisations by forcing Google to pay Facebook and Google for their ad revenue. There was a consensus that social media platforms should be forced to put the public interest ahead of models that foster political and social division. 2021 saw this trend. Is there a source for the groundwell? Whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s leak of Facebook’s internal documents to news organizations grounded not in “engagement” but in trust built on the verification of facts.

Learn more Inside Frances Haugen’s Decision to Take on Facebook

It is not uncommon for journalists to be subjected to physical threats. Numerous journalists have been detained since February 1, when the military overthrew Myanmar’s government. Many Afghan journalists are now at risk due to the Taliban returning. Mexico has seen nine journalists killed in the past year. Al-Shabab had sent a suicide bomber on November 1st to attack Radio Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

But so much is dependent on how communication works. This year 18 countries used a “middlebox” in China’s Huawei technology to block news outlets—and 54 others could do the same. Internet allows journalists to communicate with more people and faster than ever before. “But like any technology, it’s dual use,” notes Mahoney. “You’ve seen this cheap and instant communication revolutionizing journalism and the distribution of news and information, but also being turned against the very publishers of that news and information. It’s a constant battle.”

—With reporting by Simmone Shah


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