Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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DHAKA, BANGLADESH - Students and activists attend a torch procession on February 26, 2021 as they protest over the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in prison, following his arrest under the country's Digital Security Act [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

‘Fake news’ laws are killing journalists

Countries which have introduced ‘digital security’ laws in the name of combating fake news are also seeing a rise in murders of journalists


These days, as editor of this magazine, I find myself mostly reading and working on articles and features about the brutality and terror faced by a vast number of journalists - most, but not all, operating in the global south.

The murders of journalists occasionally make international headlines - such as the assassination of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the hands of Israeli forces in occupied Palestine, or the killing of British journalist Dom Phillips in Brazil, where he reported on Indigenous efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest, including investigating issues such as illegal fishing, which may well be what got him killed.

But, on the whole, we don’t hear much about journalists who die doing their jobs at all. It’s almost as if nobody really cares all that much. Indeed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a shocking 81 percent of murders of journalists go unsolved. There seems to be little political or social will to investigate or prevent these killings at all.

In fact, in many countries, there seems to be a strong political will to support the systems which are responsible for terrorising journalists. A worrying trend in the number of countries introducing “data security” laws or “fake news” committees is just the latest step in this.

Every time I edit a piece about how difficult it is to be a journalist in different countries around the world, there is nearly always evidence showing how the introduction of these sorts of laws and restrictions correlate with a rise in deaths of journalists.

In Bangladesh, where the government is currently preparing to tighten up the already draconian 2018 Digital Security Act, there has been widespread misuse of these powers against journalists, as we have reported recently. Dissident writer Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested for criticising the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on social media. He was charged under the Act with “spreading rumours” and “tarnishing the image of the country’s founding father”. He died after being held for nine months - allegedly enduring torture - in the Kashimpur jail. 

A photographer, Shahidul Alam, spent 107 days in prison - again for “spreading rumours”, while the award-winning journalist Rozina Islam was arrested last year while working on exposing corruption in the health sector.

Bangladesh is far from the only country whose “digital security” and “fake news” laws are harming journalists. As we have reported here, this is happening clearly in places including India, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Palestine as well. And those are just some of the places that this magazine has examined closely.

In deciding to 'move on' from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, in order to 'reset' its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the US has firmly demonstrated that it doesn’t care much about journalists’ safety either


These sorts of laws can be taken to extremes to keep journalists in check.

Just a few days ago, investigative journalist CJ Werleman revealed how Twitter had agreed to demands from the Indian government to delete tweets he had written criticising its approach to rising Islamophobic violence in the country. Twitter did this, it said, in accordance with India's Information Technology Act.

Under the law in Bangladesh - where a 15-year-old was arrested for being rude about the Prime Minister - a journalist can be arrested and imprisoned for merely reporting the fact that, for example, the United States sanctioned Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officials for human rights offences. This is true and ought to be deemed in the public interest to be reported. However, as it can also be considered to bring the country into disrepute, mentioning it would be illegal in Bangladesh.

The United States does not hold any sort of high ground here, however. As we reported recently, the US is on its own path towards criminalising journalism with the sinsterly named new Disinformation Governance Board, established under the Biden government. Its primary aim for now is to counter “fake news” from the Russian side about the war in Ukraine. But what it also does is discourage nuanced questions from journalists about either side. This can be seen through a flurry of sloppy, false stories about Ukraine which have appeared in Western press.

While I am no fan of Julian Assange’s style of journalism, his persecution by the US authorities also highlights how one-sided America’s version of combating “fake news” really is. There is also strong evidence that the US has used anti-terrorist laws against journalists, such as Bilal Abdul Kareem, who says he is on a US “kill list” and has survived five attempts on his life.

Furthermore, in deciding to “move on” from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was hacked to death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in the name of “resetting” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the US has firmly demonstrated that it doesn’t care much about journalists’ safety either.

Despite the very clear dangers that they face, journalists all over the world continue in their mission to hold powerful people to account and to bring the truth to light. Many of them have told their stories in this magazine. We will continue to be a rare platform for journalists in all parts of the world to tell their stories and we salute their courage and conviction.

Nina Montagu-Smith is the editor of Al Jazeera Journalism Review


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