Fighting words: Journalism is under attack in Europe

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

The United States is far from the only country where journalists work in a toxic political environment, one in which the leader of the nation routinely attacks and demonizes the media. A recently published report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the UK describes how similar patterns can be seen in a number of other countries in central and eastern Europe, including Hungary — where leader Viktor Orban has centralized control of the press — and Turkey, where president Recep Erdogan has done more or less the same thing. The report, entitled “Fighting Words: Journalism Under Assault in Central and Eastern Europe,” surveyed working journalists in 16 countries about the working conditions and attacks they face. And this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we hosted a series of interviews based around the publication of the report, including a discussion with Meera Selva, the director of Reuters Institute’s fellowship program (and a veteran journalist with experience in Singapore, London, and Nairobi), as well as a number of discussions with fellows about their perceptions on the topic of journalism under attack.

Selva noted in her interview that there has been a notable decline in press freedom in many countries in the region, including Poland and Hungary, where populist parties came to power and exerted partisan control over the media. There are similar problems in countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, Selva said, where journalists have become targets for threats and violence. In Slovakia, an investigative journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, while working on a story about government corruption. His death sparked protests across the country and eventually brought down the government. In other countries, however, attacks continue, a process that Selva says has two prongs: “One part involves verbally criticizing journalists, and the other part involves weakening the legal, economic and structural frameworks that support independent journalism. This can involve changing laws on media ownership so that only government-friendly investors can buy media outlets.”

One aspect of this toxic environment that she found really striking, Selva says, was how many journalists talked about attacks that came not from the government but from other journalists. In many of the countries the media have split on pro-government and anti-government lines and journalists from one side have no solidarity with those from the other, she says, and so “the idea of a journalist as an impartial, independent observer is being undermined.” In some countries there has been support for the press, such as in Slovakia after Kuciak was murdered, but “in other countries, protests have been a general howl of anger against the establishment, and the media is seen as part of that establishment,” says Selva. Reuters fellow Nana Ama Agyemang Asante, who is from Ghana, said that she has noticed a similar trend in her country as well. “There has been a shift in the relationship between journalists and the Ghanaian public,” she says. “They are no longer trusted and in some cases are seen as part of the problem, as part of the corrupt class and now face constant attacks online and offline.”

Nana Ama is a co-host of one of the most listened-to morning shows in Ghana, and the deputy online editor of the station’s news website, and is also the creator of The Unfiltered, a podcast that gives Ghanaian women a platform to participate in national conversations. She says journalists there often face coordinated attacks and harassment from both state and non-state actors. Last year, an investigative journalist was murdered in broad daylight in the capital of Accra, and there were over 40 other cases of assault and violence against journalists in Ghana. Her colleague Jaakko Lyytinen, who is a feature writer and producer of live journalism shows at the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper in Finland, said trust in the media is still high in his country, but it has fallen from the 68-percent range to below 60 percent. One culprit, he says, is that right-wing populist politicians accuse the legacy media of being an untrustworthy and biased institution and have turned public opinion against the press.

Two leading Brazilian journalists who are also Reuters fellows — Daniela Pinheiro, who was editor in chief of the weekly magazine Epoca, and Consuelo Dieguez, one of the first journalists to profile the now president Jair Bolsonaro — say similar patterns can be seen in their country. “I’ve been working as a journalist for 27 years and have been attacked for the first time in my life for doing my job,” says Dieguez. Bolsonaro mimics the approach taken by Donald Trump, she says, attacking and undermining the media through posts on social media. And in many cases, Selva notes, the kinds of attacks described in the Reuters report come on top of what in many countries is an already fragile financial environment. Media outlets that criticize the government get less state advertising, and private companies often cut their spending as well, for fear of irritating the government. “The media business is challenging enough without having the dice loaded against you,” she says. The CJR-Reuters interview series continues all week.

Here’s more on threats to journalism in Europe and elsewhere:

A need for support: In the conclusion to the Reuters report, it looks at what journalists who have been attacked and harassed would like to see happen, and the overwhelming answer was more support from other journalists and media organizations. “Our survey asked journalists who had been attacked for their work what would have been most helpful, and the clearest majority said the best support would be from other media organisations in their country. This, more than international support, and certainly more than support from foreign governments, is seen as vital.”

Mexico and Greece: Last year, CJR wrote about the increasingly dangerous environment for journalists in Mexico, where four reporters were killed in a single month, including one whose body was found in the trunk of a car, showing signs of torture. And in Greece, CJR wrote about how the rise of a right-wing populist party had led to increasing attacks on journalists, including photographers who had their cameras and data cards forcibly taken from them during demonstrations held in protest of a political accord between Greece and Macedonia.

Rising threat: According to a UNESCO report released in November, a total of 495 journalists were killed between 2014 and 2018, an 18 percent increase compared with the previous five-year period. The study, called Intensified Attacks, New Defences, said Arab countries were the most dangerous places for journalists in the 2014-2018 period, representing 30 percent (149 journalists) of global killings. The region was followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, where 26 percent (127 journalists) of the killings took place.

Other notable stories:

Spotify is making another big-budget purchase aimed at getting a lead in the growing podcast industry, by offering to acquire The Ringer, the podcast-centric media company run and owned by Bill Simmons, according to a report from Vox. Spotify intends to hire Simmons and all of his approximately 90 employees, most of whom work on The Ringer’s website, which covers sports and culture, and Spotify intends to keep the site up and running, Vox says.

The Justice Department has reached out to more than a dozen companies in its antitrust probe of Google, including publishers, advertising technology firms and advertising agencies, as the company’s online ad tools become a major focus of the investigation, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal that quotes “people familiar with the matter.” The company’s third-party advertising business was built largely on the 2008 acquisition of ad-technology firm DoubleClick.

Protocol, a new technology-news site owned by Robert Allbritton, the man who co-founded Politico, launched on Wednesday. “The naive optimism of tech’s early days is gone, replaced by a backlash that, at its extremes, can be equally naive,” executive editor Tim Grieve wrote in his opening essay. “Tech can’t be wished out of existence, nor can we expect to enjoy all of its benefits without paying some of its costs. But neither can tech industry leaders expect to get by with a hopeful promise that they won’t be evil.”

Google said the built-in ad blocker inside its Chrome browser will soon start blocking several new categories of video ads that users have said they find intrusive, including long, non-skippable pre-roll ads, mid-roll ads that appear in the middle of a video, or images and text ads that appear on top of a playing video and cover more than 20 percent of the content. If websites don’t remove these kinds of ads, they could find all their advertising blocked, Google says.

The Knight Foundation has launched an open call for newsrooms that serve underrepresented communities to apply for one-time grants of up to $20,000 to adopt or manage a new digital publishing system. The open call is part of a three-year, $2 million commitment by the foundation designed to help newsrooms access and adopt new digital publishing systems with the aim of increasing revenue, membership and audience engagement. The foundation says it will hold similar calls in 2021 and 2022.

In a report published Wednesday, a London-based cybersecurity company tied the impersonation of journalists to a hacking group nicknamed Charming Kitten, which has long been associated with Iran. An Israeli security firm called ClearSky Cyber Security provided Reuters with documentation of similar impersonations of media figures at CNN and Deutsche Welle, a German public broadcaster. ClearSky also linked the hacking attempts to Charming Kitten, describing the individuals targeted as Israeli academics or researchers who study Iran.

A New York Times report says that the Epoch Times, a mysterious Chinese publication that started 20 years ago as a print newspaper published by practitioners of the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, has ramped up its advertising spending on YouTube after being banned from Facebook for running afoul of the social network’s ad transparency policies. The company said the Epoch Times was connected to a group called TheBL that used fake accounts to generate interest in its content.

The owner of The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press newspapers, as well as their community publications, has accepted buyouts from 20 people in its Virginia news operations as part of company-wide staff reductions. Tribune Publishing announced in mid-January that it would offer voluntary separation incentive plans to anyone with at least eight years of work history with Tribune. Its holdings include The Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and the Baltimore Sun.

The Poynter Institute spoke with former Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw and former Tribune chief audience officer Amanda Zamora about their new startup, a publication called The 19th that is dedicated to empowering women through coverage of policy and politics that affect women in the US. “I want to build a newsroom for and by women where we allow women to advance in this most critical field without sacrificing their families or their children,” said Ramshaw.

Jigsaw, a company that develops cutting-edge technology and is owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, recently unveiled a free tool that researchers said could help journalists spot doctored photographs, even ones created with the help of artificial intelligence. The tool, which is called Assembler, is being tested with more than a dozen news and fact-checking organizations around the world including Rappler in the Philippines and Agence France-Presse. The company said that it does not plan to offer the tool to the public.

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