The World’s Dismal Convergence on Press Freedom

The World’s Dismal Convergence on Press Freedom

The World’s Dismal Convergence on Press Freedom

Western reporters used to be markedly freer than their colleagues in the Arab world. Can they still claim that privilege?


At the end of May, I served on a jury for a major Arab press-freedom award. The prize is named for Samir Kassir, a brave Lebanese journalist who wrote prolifically about the abuse of power by the warlords who controlled his country. He was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005; it is widely believed the Syrian regime, which bore the brunt of Kassir’s criticism, was behind it. The European Union helped establish the award in his memory the year after he was killed with the goal of supporting journalists committed to human rights and democracy.

The importance of free and critical journalism has only become more relevant since then in a region full of authoritarian leaders. But with this type of political leadership now proliferating in the West, the countries that once saw themselves as beacons of freedom need to relearn the lessons they sought to impart not so long ago.

Back in 2006, a press-freedom event in Beirut felt markedly more subversive than a journalism-award ceremony in the United States or European Union. For all the Western world’s shortcomings, it has, for most of my lifetime, been friendlier to journalists and critical writers than any other region. As a citizen of Europe and the United States with the freedom to challenge or even attack those in power, I have had some measure of pride and security.

In 2006, Western reporters documented war crimes and other abuses of power perpetrated by the United States and its mostly European allies in the post-9/11 “forever” wars. Journalists uncovered some of their government’s darkest secrets, including extrajudicial killing, torture, secret prisons, drone strikes on civilians, unwarranted surveillance, and much more. This work rarely got the traction or hearing it deserved, and almost never did it reverse bad policy. But at least some evidence was being aired and entered into the public record.

Our colleagues in the Middle East and North Africa had it much harder. Even the mildest criticism of an authoritarian regime in, say, Egypt or Syria, could land a journalist in prison. In fragmented, largely ungoverned states like Iraq and Lebanon, critical writers were routinely assassinated by sinister, unidentified militants. When it came to press freedom, there was a real body of evidence that suggested a qualitative gap between “the West” and “the rest.”

In my short lifetime, though, that gap has been steadily erased—and not in the way that I had hoped. Today, areas allowing unambiguously free journalism are shrinking all over the world. The West’s erstwhile privileges have eroded, as elected leaders embrace illiberal authoritarian practices—often with the support of their electorate.

The tactics used with such effect by Arab dictatorships have become standard operating procedure everywhere. Surveillance, threats of violence, military censorship, targeted assassinations of investigated journalists: These are no longer pathologies of the unfree world. These are the working conditions for journalists everywhere—Europe, Russia, China, the Middle East, and yes, even the United States.

Consider the practices that have become normalized in Donald Trump’s America: taunting journalists in front of rabid crowds; spreading conspiracy theories; demonizing ethnic and political groups that oppose untrammeled authoritarianism; calling journalists “enemies of the people.” We’ve witnessed alarming experiments with new ways to suppress speech, from threatened subpoenas by the government to the scandalous conduct of the private intelligence firm Black Cube, whose agents tried to trick or intimidate journalists to stop them from reporting the truth about insalubrious clients like Harvey Weinstein. These are tactics that not long ago would have been condemned for their echoes of Stalin, Mao, Middle East dictators, and Golden Age industrialists. Now, they are practically becoming a global norm.

Eroding press freedom comes as part of a broader global turn toward authoritarianism. After the Cold War, a borderless world seemed in the offing; today, freedom of movement is ever more imperiled. One reporter from Gaza was able to coordinate last-minute travel to Beirut for the Samir Kassir awards, securing permission not only from Israeli and Palestinian authorities but also from normally restrictive security officials in Egypt and Lebanon, all of whom had to approve the journalist’s travel. Less lucky was a Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press photographer from Yemen, who was denied a US visa. He joined the awards ceremony in New York through a smartphone hoisted by one of his colleagues. By chance, both events took place on the same week.

This isn’t to say the news is all bad—at least, not all of the news about the free press. Some of the global convergence on press freedom stems from the remarkable achievements of journalists from places like Syria, where, among the embers of a soul-shattering war, the achievements of local reporters stand out.

The winner of this year’s Samir Kassir investigative journalism category, for example, was Ali Alibrahim’s “Forging Death,” a stunning inquiry into the torture and murder of detainees in Bashar al-Assad’s gulag. Alibrahim, who is now based in Stockholm, published his investigation on Vice Arabia. It’s clinical and precise—no fiery jeremiads, just reported and damning facts, clearly sourced and methodically arrayed. “As we searched for their identities and investigated the circumstances of their deaths, we discovered that the Syrian regime’s approach to death by torture was systematic,” Alibrahim writes. “Our investigation took us to six Syrian cities only to uncover the regime’s deliberate approach to abduction and torture and concealment of evidence.”

His reporting complements related investigations by other journalists in outlets like The New York Times and The New Yorker. And it’s the work of a peer and a colleague, not of a journalism trainee or understudy. As a result of this regional prowess, the whiff of paternalism around the Samir Kassir Award has largely dissipated. Born at a moment when Europeans might have felt they had something to teach the Arab world about press freedom and critical journalism, the Samir Kassir Foundation’s entire endeavor is now imbued with a sense of shared purpose. Embattled advocates of dissent in Europe and the Middle East-North Africa region are making common cause against authoritarian vicissitudes.

“I hope one day Bashar will be held accountable,” Alibrahim said at the ceremony, enclosed in a group hug by relatives (like him, refugees) who had traveled to Beirut for the event. “But today, I am proud.”

The host of the Samir Kassir Foundation is Lebanon, a comparatively free Arab country that dolls up its own persecution of journalists with a veneer of civility. Reporters in Lebanon are less likely than elsewhere in the region to be disappeared, tortured, or killed. But they are routinely imprisoned, fined, and harassed when they write uncomfortable truths about the war crimes and corruption of the small cabal of warlords and mafia bosses that controls the country. The red lines are drawn more narrowly, but they still cannot be easily crossed.

Illiberal leaders in the West are paying attention to the practices of authoritarians in the Middle East. Lebanon’s comparatively genteel and indirect model of repression offers a possible vision of where the West’s aspiring authoritarians might hope to lead us. Already, these other states that are technically liberal democracies, including the United States, Hungary, Israel, and dozens of other offenders of varying culpability, routinely practice censorship, threaten journalists with prosecution, or use regulatory tools to smother critical publications.

After the awards ceremony in Beirut, a uniformed general waved me over to laugh about a critical remark I’d made about how Lebanon’s authorities might be employ less violence than their peers in Syria or Egypt, but are nonetheless profoundly guilty of stifling free speech. “The electricity in this country is of very poor quality,” he said. “So don’t worry! If we put any electricity on you, it won’t hurt very much.” I was startled, but didn’t feel threatened. It was clear that he was joking, and that the worst thing likely to happen to me in Lebanon is to be shunned by a government official at an event, or maybe to have to spend a few extra hours at airport security.

The sense of warning, nonetheless, was clear—not just for me but for everyone. Imperious, unaccountable governments and security services have drawn their red lines and will do their utmost to police them. Thus is the way of power, which, even in democracies, dislikes criticism. But the award finalists I met, like Ali Alibrahim, have staked out their own opposing position. They will report, investigate, and publish, no matter what they individually must suffer. The costs are high, sometimes impossibly so. The more that journalists suffer, the more of them can be found at work, gathering uncomfortable evidence with an ever-increasing level of professionalism. All of us can take inspiration from their example.

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