Free Press

“The Cost of Digging Deep”: The Global and Local Struggles Faced by the Press

Anita Lombardo |  January 21, 2021

The number of journalists killed and detained worldwide is still at a historically high level. According to the RSF 2020 annual report, 937 reporters have been killed in the past 10 years alone.

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Much of what we know about the world around us is through hearing, watching, or reading the news. But what does it take to gather and publish a news piece? This question rarely comes to mind while reading a newspaper, especially in countries where press freedom is not often called into question. However, reporting facts and exposing personal opinions can come at the cost of one’s life.

According to the 2020 annual round-up of abusive treatment and violence against journalists released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 32% of journalist fatalities took place in war-stricken countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

During 2020 alone, a total of 50 journalists were killed worldwide, according to the second part of the annual round-up published by the RSF.

The newly published data reveals that, compared to 2016, a significantly higher number of fatalities are taking place in countries considered “at peace”: the killings in Mexico, India, the Philippines and Honduras account for more than two thirds of 2020’s journalist deaths.

In spite of regional differences, the double digit number describing the loss of journalists in 2020 paints a gloomy picture of the capability of countries around the world to protect and uphold an inalienable human right: that of freedom of expression and speech.

“The world’s violence continues to be visited upon journalists. Some may think that journalists are just the victims of the risks of their profession, but journalists are increasingly targeted when they investigate or cover sensitive subjects. What is being attacked is the right to be informed, which is everyone’s right.”
– Christophe Deloire, RSF Secretary-General

What are then the sensitive subjects that cost tese 50 people their lives? According to the report, the most dangerous stories are investigations into local corruption or misuse of public funds and investigations into the activities of organised crime. Reporter Julio Valivia Rodriguez, who was found beheaded in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, covered the links between drug traffickers and politicians. Indian reporter Rakesh Singh, who had accused a local village chief of corruption in connection with local infrastructure projects, was burned alive in his home. Just to name a few instances of lethal violence against journalists.

Although they may not always be victims of such inhumane and extreme physical attacks, reporters often run the risk of being persecuted, harassed and criticised even in countries where the press is considered to enjoy relatively high freedom of speech. Only a few weeks ago, during the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, several reporters were abused, threatened and saw their equipment stolen or damaged by the mob.

Several incidents involving journalists have also been reported in Belgium, which ranks 12th in the 2020 world press freedom index. Among the latest is the detention of Himad Messoudi, a journalist in a national public service broadcaster, RTBF. While filming a protest at a detention centre for migrants in June 2018, the police asked him to turn the camera off and shortly after they confiscated his equipment and arrested him and his four colleagues.

Professor of Journalism studies at KU Leuven, Baldwin Van Dorp, explains that while writing their stories, journalists in Belgium are not always free from external pressures and influences. Rather than political interference with the press, economic powers may hinder the ability of the press to be critical and even lead to self-censorship. For instance, journalists might fear criticising their own media company or the big advertising companies funding the press. And even when a journalist wants to “cut free” from such interference, alternative employers might not always be that easy to find. A problematic aspect of press in Belgium noted by professor Van Dorp is indeed the limited number of media companies on the market.

“Only a few years ago there were twenty or thirty companies but now there are only two public broadcast reporting news. It’s not a monopoly, but we are very close to it.”
– Baldwin Van Dorp, Professor of Journalism at KU Leuven

Media ownership in Belgium is indeed concentrated in the hands of just a few media companies. For instance, according to Media Landscape, the market of printed news in Flanders is divided among three major private groups: De Persgroep, Corelio and Concentra. The merger between the latter two in the joint venture, Mediahuis in 2013 gave life to the biggest print publisher in the Flemish market, which distributes some of the most well known newspapers, such as De standaard, Het nieuwsblad and Het belang van Limburg. According to their own website, Mediahuis is also “the most important player in the Flemish regional television market”, managing popular channels such as ATV, TVL and TV OOST.

Psychological intimidation can also lead to self-censorship among journalists in Belgium. “You feel insecure as a journalist because you are afraid of reactions on social media, of receiving offensive emails” commented Professor Van Gorp. Even at a smaller scale this appears to be true, for example in the context of student-run publications. “Journalism is a risky business… you get a lot of hate and nasty comments for some articles you write. This is mostly invisible and also indirect…. in the form of comments on Twitter for instance, but it’s not nice to work in this environment” said the Editor-in-Chief of Veto, Daan Delespaul. Protests and criticisms for some articles written by students come also from institutional figures, such as the rector or national politicians. “It has happened in the past that politicians and the vicerector had called us with some remarks.” Delespaul says. He notes that Veto faces the challenge of striking a balance between being critical and maintaining a good relationship with the professors and rectorate, as leaning too much on the former side of the spectrum might risk compromising later careers of its members.

Reporters always have something at stake when deciding to expose and comment upon the disturbing aspects of the reality we all live in: sometimes it is their psychological wellbeing and their sense of safety, and sometimes it is even their own lives. Death threats, psychological intimidations and pressures experienced by the press are evidence that the price to pay for “digging deep” can be very high, but faced nonetheless daily by million reporters worldwide: isn’t that a bit heroic after all?

Why Did Vladimir Putin Start a War Against Ukraine?

Ksenia Eggert | March 24, 2022

The historical and ideological reasons behind the war against Ukraine, as described by a Russian international student.

Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/GettyImages. (CSIS.org)

In the early morning of 24th February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian troops that had been located for many weeks on the borders between the two countries attacked Ukraine on multiple fronts. This happened while the members of the UN Security Council were having an emergency meeting and calling Russia for peace. 

A month has passed since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the claims of the Russian government that there would be no attacks on the civil population and civilian objects, the world has seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. People dead and injured (including children), civilian buildings shelled and bombed, key infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Russian military attacked the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear power station and committed countless war crimes by killing civilians and even shooting at the car of a Swiss journalist. It is already obvious that this conflict is the first of this scale in Europe since the second world war.  

So, why did Russia attack Ukraine? And was it unexpected?   

The current war against Ukraine is a continuation of the attack that began back in 2014. It is also the horrifying culmination of 20 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule and the tragic outcome of Russia’s first 30 years after the collapse of the USSR. 

Unfortunately, many people I have met in Europe still do not understand that Russia’s foreign policy is intimately connected to a deteriorating domestic situation.  Many of you are probably familiar with this explanation of the war through numerous videos and articles already – that Russia attacked Ukraine because it feels threatened by NATO expanding eastward, even though it was promised that NATO would not expand. This explanation is often taken at face value, especially by those opposed to NATO, the US, or the so-called western world. The problem with this argument is that it only works if: 1) you do not know the political context in Ukraine and Russia, or 2) you are willing to sacrifice countless lives for geopolitical gains. Moreover, the myth that NATO promised Russia to not expand eastward has already been refuted in an extensive Chatham House report, as well as many others (examples here, here, and here).  

Vladimir Putin and his entourage may believe this, but it should be remembered that any attempt by the Kremlin to pit Russia against the West, or to portray the West as equally “bad”, or to use the realpolitik terms is first and foremost a charade for the domestic audience. One should not underestimate the seriousness of the Russians’ post-Soviet imperial complex. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, its longtime Cold War rival, the United States, became the sole superpower and achieved gigantic political and cultural influence around the world. Inside Russia however, the promised rapid changes to the free market and democracy did not materialize, and the difficult transition period of the 1990s left many Russians severely disillusioned and craving both stability and a sense of identity.   

At the same time, many of the former Soviet bloc countries joined NATO and the EU and underwent their own painful transitions to develop free economies and democratic regimes. Despite persistent problems, many of these countries have succeeded in economic, political, and social development, unlike Russia. The disappearance of direct Russian (as in Soviet) influence in these countries and the loss of the superpower status, combined with growing domestic problems, has created a need for an ideology that would compensate for both internal deprivation and the lack of external “greatness”. Putin’s famous Munich speech marked an active turn of his foreign policy and domestic policy towards a revival of Russia. 

War with Ukraine is not entirely shocking to anyone who remembers that Russia has already been at war with its neighbors in this century. In 2008, Russia responded with military aggression to a referendum in Georgia in which 77 % of Georgians favored the country joining NATO. As a result, the Russian military sided with the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and ended up essentially creating puppet states there.  

In 2014 Vladimir Putin was severely displeased with the revolution in Ukraine, during which the country’s citizens overthrew pro-Kremlin President Vladimir Yanukovich and opted for Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and establishing proxy “states” on Ukrainian territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  

In both cases, these conflicts were presented to the Russian public as a consequence of direct aggression and a threat from Georgia/Ukraine/West, as protection of peaceful citizens (Ossetians, Ukrainians, Russians), and as an attempt to stop genocide. Each conflict was presented as a victory for Russia, which was supposed to make ordinary Russians once again proud of Russia’s active role in the international arena. This was especially true of the annexation of Crimea. It raised Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings to record highs and distracted Russians from internal corruption and the regime’s increasing authoritarianism.  

For many Russians, 2014 was the year of “Crimean euphoria” for a wary minority – a breaking point after which it became clear that Russian military aggression in the region would only increase. Relatively mild sanctions from the West, continued formal and informal political relations (often promoting the personal business interests of Russian politicians and businessmen as well as of their Western colleagues) and the generally positive reaction of the Russian society finally convinced the Kremlin of the effectiveness of the militarist and revanchist imperial ideology. Since 2014, this ideology has started to completely dominate Kremlin’s propaganda along with pseudo-patriotism and pseudo-Orthodoxy. 

The problem is that the standard of living in Russia has also changed since 2014: corruption in all sectors, growing poverty, the growing dissatisfaction of citizens with the regime and its authoritarianism. This led to the need to increase the pressure of the ideology, distracting Russians from their internal problems and convincing them that only Vladimir Putin’s regime can provide them with a new identity as citizens of a country “respected and feared throughout the world,” and to protect Russians from the “aggressive” environment. Self-assertion in the region at the expense of Ukraine has become an ideological condition for the regime’s existence. For the past 8 years, Russian propagandists on state TV and radio channels and other media platforms have been telling Russians that they are threatened by NATO and the West, that Ukraine is not a sovereign state, that the Ukrainian authorities are committing genocide against Russians in Donbas, and that the Ukrainian government is fascist. In the last months of 2021 and the first months of 2022, I personally watched as the propaganda narratives intensified, screaming of an imminent military clash between Russia and Ukraine, because Russia has to “protect Russians in Ukraine” and because “the West is pushing us into war” (debunked here). 

In Vladimir Putin’s televised address, broadcast on the morning of February 24 he does not call the attack on Ukraine a war – but “a special military operation to ‘denazify’ and ‘democratize’ Ukraine”. This was only to be expected considering all the preparatory rhetoric. 

A lot of people wonder if Vladimir Putin is “crazy” to start a war and to continue it in such an inhumane way. The short answer? No. The long answer was summed up perfectly by Andrei Kozyrev – the former and the first Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin – in a Twitter thread. Basically, Putin really believes, that 1) Ukraine is not a real country, 2) Russia’s army is in great condition, and 3) the West (especially NATO and the EU) is weak. He acted based on these conclusions, believing they were right. Until the Ukrainians proved him to be very wrong.  

Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/GettyImages. (CSIS.org)

This war has already claimed the lives of many Ukrainians. But they continue to defend their country. They refuse to give up. 

Slava Ukraini! 

Check out the page of “Students for Ukraine” – an official KU Leuven student association that collects humanitarian donations for Ukraine  https://www.students4ua.org/