Ten Ways to Repress a Journalist

May 3, 2013

People hold posters as they mark World Press Freedom Day in Tbilisi (Photo Credit: Vano Shlamov/AFP/GettyImages).
People hold posters as they mark World Press Freedom Day in Tbilisi (Photo Credit: Vano Shlamov/AFP/GettyImages).

Governments and other organizations across the world are perfecting techniques to prevent journalists from shining a light on corruption and human rights abuses. From trumped-up charges and removing work licenses to murder, here are 10 ways journalists are repressed and prevented from reporting freely and fairly.

1. Physical Attacks
In some countries such as Syria, Turkmenistan and Somalia, governments, military forces and armed groups attack and even kill journalists who are seen to be critical of their policies and practices.

In May 2012, 18-year-old citizen journalist Abd al-Ghani Ka’ake was fatally shot by a government sniper in Syria while filming a demonstration in Aleppo. Armed opposition groups have also attacked and killed journalists.

Journalist Miguel Ángel López Velasco, his wife and their son were shot and killed at their home in Veracruz, Mexico, by unidentified gunmen in June 2011. He had previously received death threats.

Abdihared Osman Aden, from Somalia, was shot dead by unidentified men while walking to work on January 19, 2013. He is one of at least 23 journalists killed in the country since 2011.

2. Threat of Prison
Journalists also risk being charged under legislation that criminalizes the peaceful expression of views, or with trumped-up, politically motivated charges (such as possession of drugs and fraud) to stop them from reporting is common.

In Iran, at least 18 journalists have been arrested since January 2013, accused of cooperating with “anti-revolutionary” media organizations outside Iran. Dozens of journalists and bloggers are now behind bars in Iran.

In January 2012, journalists Reyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye were convicted of terrorism offences in Ethiopia. During the trial, access to lawyers was restricted, defendants were not provided with effective interpretation and evidence obtained under coercion was admitted.

3. Harassment
Many governments find that threatening journalists or their relatives is effective in silencing them.

Relatives of the Voice of America reporter Negar Mohammadi, from Iran, have been banned from travelling and the passport of one of them was confiscated in February 2012.

In Yemen, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani has been under threat since early 2013 after he wrote articles about secret detention centers and torture by the First Armored Division. Weapons were twice fired outside his home and he received anonymous phone calls asking him if he could hear the shooting.

4. Monitoring
In countries including Cuba and China, activists and journalists find it particularly difficult to report on human rights issues because their communications can be monitored by state officials.

In China many people were sentenced to long prison terms in 2012 for posting blogs or sending information that was deemed sensitive.

5. Banning Access to the Internet
Some repressive regimes seek to control internet access in order to regulate journalists’ activities.

The authorities in China temporarily blocked access to the New York Times and Bloomberg websites and banned searches for ‘New York Times’ after the news organizations exposed controversial financial details of some of China’s leaders.

6. Set Up Excessive Libel Laws
Libel laws in countries can be misused in an attempt to prevent journalists from criticizing government officials and powerful individuals.

In Timor-Leste, Oscar Maria Salsinha and Raimundo Oki were accused of “slanderous denunciations” after publishing articles on a District Prosecutor who allegedly received a bribe in a traffic accident case that occurred on October 18, 2011.

In August 2012, Islam Affifi, editor of Egyptian newspaper El-Dostor, was brought to trial for publishing false information “insulting the President.”

7. Removing visas and work permits
In some countries, including Syria, governments deny or remove visas from foreign journalists to stop them from investigating human rights abuses while national journalists face the same risk to their work permits.

Andrzej Poczobut is serving a three-year suspended prison sentence in Belarus – imposed in July 2011 – on charges of “libeling the President” for articles about prisoners of conscience in Belarus. Under the conditions of this ruling he has to register with the police regularly and cannot leave the country.

8. Failure to investigate attacks against journalists
By failing to bring to justice those responsible for attacks against journalists, governments send the message that preventing reporting on what they see as sensitive issues is permitted.

One of the individuals accused of torturing journalist Nazeeha Saeed after she was arrested in Bahrain in 2011 was acquitted, despite forensic evidence of her torture. Nazeeha was detained and tortured after speaking out about the killing of a protester she witnessed at the Pearl Roundabout.

9. Shutting down media outlets
The authorities in many countries shut down newspapers and radio stations deemed critical of them.

In the first two months of 2012, the authorities in Sudan suspended three newspapers using laws that allow them to ban any publication containing information considered a threat to national security.

In Somalia, in April 2013, the authorities in Puntland banned three radio stations in what is seen as the latest in a string of attacks on the media ahead of local elections.

10. Promote smear attacks
In many countries, governments promote smear attacks against journalists critical of the authorities.

Venezuelan Rayma Suprani has been receiving threats and insults via text message and social media sites. She thinks this is a coordinated attack due to her work as a political cartoonist and journalist.