Protect democracy and journalists
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Protect democracy and journalists

'Foreign agent", "undesirable", "extremist". For thousands of independent journalists trying to live and work in Russia, these words can be life-changing.

In April, Ilya Barabanov, the BBC's Russian correspondent, was labelled a "foreign agent" by Russia's justice ministry, effectively barring him from covering many aspects of civic life. Such designations obviously stifle press freedom, and they are often just the beginning. The arrests in April of Konstantin Gabov and Sergey Karelin, both accused of producing content for the YouTube channel of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, show that even being affiliated with a media outlet deemed "extremist" is enough to face imprisonment.

Barabanov has since left Russia, and he is not alone. Under relentless state pressure, independent news outlets across the country are shutting down. More than two years into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian journalists are finding a new life in exile, with at least 93 media outlets now operating abroad.

Belarusian journalists face a similarly grim reality. State-owned media are controlled by President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and those working for any remaining independent outlets face censorship, violence, and arrest. Following the suppression of Belarus's pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021, most of the country's independent media have relocated to Poland and Lithuania.

This alarming trend is by no means limited to Eastern Europe. Rising authoritarianism, conflict, and threats to press freedom are driving a growing number of journalists worldwide to flee their home countries. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists seeking support for relocation increased by 227% between 2020 and 2023, with most coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua.

In their new host countries, many exiled journalists focus on resuming their work. As half the planet's population heads to the polls this year, these journalists are uniquely positioned to provide factual counternarratives to state-sponsored propaganda and report on electoral fraud, corruption, and human rights abuses in their home countries with less fear of retribution than colleagues who stayed behind. They also serve as lifelines for refugee populations, offering crucial information about the situation back home and providing fellow émigrés with a platform to voice their concerns.

This year has already provided several inspiring examples. In the run-up to February's elections in El Salvador, El Faro, an exiled media outlet based in Costa Rica, exposed numerous cases of electoral misconduct, gerrymandering, misuse of public funds, and inadequate oversight of the diaspora vote. Likewise, Meduza, a Russian outlet now headquartered in Riga, produced important coverage of the Kremlin's use of electronic voting terminals to pressure civil servants to vote in March's presidential election.

Journalists who flee repressive regimes also face myriad challenges in their host countries. Merely registering and restarting their operations often requires navigating complex licensing laws and regulations. And even when they succeed, gaining and retaining the trust of audiences back home can be an uphill struggle, as their websites and apps are blocked, and virtual private networks (VPNs) prove increasingly unreliable. Moreover, expatriate media outlets still maintain sources, freelancers, and staff in their home countries. The safety of these individuals is now more precarious than ever, owing to their affiliation with "tainted" organisations.

And those who leave face not only the trauma of fleeing one's country and the stress of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment but also "lawfare attacks" that abuse international legal mechanisms, extradition orders, and cyber or intellectual-property laws. This puts them within reach of the autocratic regimes they sought to escape.

This weaponisation of law to restrict media freedom is a constantly evolving threat. A 2023 survey of nearly 500 journalists from 106 countries, conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, found that nearly 50% faced legal threats, including charges of defamation, espionage, cyber libel, financial crimes, and terrorism.

Exiled media outlets, which often lack the necessary financial resources or legal know-how to defend themselves in their new jurisdictions, are particularly vulnerable to such attacks. The Salvadoran government, for example, has launched a money laundering investigation against El Faro, a tactic similar to the one used by Guatemala to imprison José Rubén Zamora, the founder and editor of the newspaper elPeriódico, which was forced to close in May 2023.

Cyberattacks, from hacks to surveillance and online harassment campaigns, are similarly transnational. After reporting on Navalny's death in February, Meduza faced the largest cyberattack in its history. The attackers disabled its website, blocked its mirror servers, destroyed its crowdfunding channels, and hacked journalists' accounts.

Throughout the Thomson Reuters Foundation's 40-year history of helping independent media build legal resilience to such threats, we have never seen a greater need for support. As exiled news outlets from South Sudan to Venezuela prepare to report on elections, we are scaling up our operations. Media organisations have a duty to combat these assaults on free speech that are causing democratic backsliding around the world. ©2024 Project Syndicate

Antonio Zappulla is CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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