Since World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 16 journalists have been killed in the Palestinian territories, three journalists in Mexico have been killed in a span of a week, and 40 Ethiopian journalists were arrested in 2021, making Ethiopia the worst jailer for journalists in Africa.
According to the Institute of Investigative Journalism, press freedom, like democracy, is at its lowest point, while attacks and surveillance on journalists are at an all-time high.
Press Freedom Day is essentially a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom, says Paula Fray, CEO of fraycollege. It is a day for journalists to reflect on press freedom and their commitment to professional ethics. It is a day to support and commemorate journalists who are targets of restraint and abolition and to remember those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of bringing stories to their audiences across the globe.
The theme for Press Freedom Day this year was “Journalism under Digital Siege”. It looked at issues regarding media censorship and the harassment and violation of journalists’ rights.
The fraycollege #JournalismTalks Twitter Space, hosted by Fray on 5 May, aimed to understand and touch on the transparency of digital platforms, empowering citizens with media and informed literacy and media viability.
Fray hosted the space. She was joined by Kenyan researcher and policy analyst Nanjira Sambuli; Ugandan investigative journalist Solomon Serwanjja; President of Kenya Editors’ Guild, Churchill Otieno, and Joan van Dyk, a reporter at the Bhekisisa Centre of Health Journalism.
A global perspective
Sambuli pointed out that when the global perspective is being painted, regarding what’s happening in the realm of digital and global events, Africans are usually given the lens of what is happening in the West, like America and Europe. Therefore, when other countries experience trends in communication and technology, which are usually weaponized for bad, Africans are forced to wait until the West experiences these issues before they are prioritized.
She says we are at a point where globally there’s a reckoning that digital technologies are not just good, but they are being used to advance the very same things and motivations that may drive how societies are ordered.
“There is also the fact that what would have become the ideal of digital democracy and internet freedom is mediated by the private sectors, all of whom are completely unaccountable, not just to our jurisdictions, but all to us, citizens who use them to congregate, communicate and receive information,” Sambuli said, adding that this complicates conversations about what the future looks like.
“Can we even say we’re consuming the same information, because of how algorithms reward certain buzzwords or sentiments? Are people feeding, in one community, from the same information diet?” she asked.
These are the divides that have emerged.
What does Journalism Under Digital Siege mean for journalists and journalism in East Africa?
“One of the major challenges today is the challenge of disinformation,” Otieno said, adding that if the quality of life is influenced and informed by the quality of information that we take in, then that’s a serious human rights question that we need to deal with.
Otieno explained the digital siege at two levels: an individual level and an institutional level.
At an individual level, a digital siege manifests in trolls, where reporters find themselves bombarded by page trolls on social media because they wrote a difficult story.
“It manifests a bit more seriously for the women journalists, because it takes a sexual tone, with body-shaming; it’s a host of very nasty things,” he said, adding that this was a larger issue for editors to consider.”
At an institutional level, it is a question of sustainability.
“We all agree, that for our societies to develop, for our democracies to mature, there has to be a constant supply of reliable and credible information on questions and issues that we care about, so that as citizens, we can step forward and play our civic roles effectively.”
Otieno emphasizes the importance of verifying information and holding those who share that information accountable.
Journalism Under Digital Siege for Investigative journalists
Investigative journalism in the digital space has provided both positive and negative connotations, Serwanjja said. Negatively, it has created issues regarding the safety of journalists.
“We’ve had people who have come back and attack [journalists], trolling you. [They are] not necessarily challenging your investigation with facts but there is a well-organized army for hire to literally come and tear you down, abuse you, literally undermining your work as an investigative journalist,” he says.
“This affects us as individuals – as human beings. We get hurt,” Serwanjja said.
Investigative journalism sometimes requires storing your work on servers. However, these servers are accessible to third parties.
“How are we sure that these serves are completely protected?” He asked, also pointing out that investigative journalists leave a lot of digital footprints online, like pictures of their families, and tweeting their location, and the hotels they’re in.
“We litter our lives intentionally,” he says, “that digital footprint is dangerous”