October Feature: Journalists in the Electoral Crosshairs
Amid a U.S. presidential campaign grabbing an ever-increasing share of national and international news coverage, journalists around the world are facing harassment, threats, and even violence for reporting on this and other bids for government office globally.
Press freedoms are more important than ever during election season, as journalists provide a conduit for news and analysis about the ideas and policy proposals that candidates put forth, serving as a tool for accountability and transparency in government. Unfortunately, journalists may find themselves facing one of a host of restrictions—including denial of access to campaign events, harassment by campaign supporters, shutdowns of news organizations and social media platforms, arrest, and even physical attack. These violations of journalists are intensified in especially heated races and elections where particular parties or families have been entrenched in politics. Below are some examples of recent election-related violations of media freedom:
In the United States, the current presidential campaigns have produced menacing vitriol directed against individual journalists, as well as a hostile atmosphere for the press in general. In July, PEN America organized a petition to send to all political campaigns, calling for all candidates to commit to “respecting and protecting the role of the press.” The petition received over 12,000 signatories and was delivered to frontrunners of each party. Despite this and ongoing calls for increased attention to press freedoms in this election cycle, abuses have continued. In September, Vice News reporter Alex Thompson was arrested while trying to cover a Houston event in support of presidential candidate Donald Trump. According to Vice, Thompson was arrested shortly after entering the event venue, the Omni Westside Hotel, to inquire whether he would be granted press access to the event. Vice reported that Thompson was “never given any opportunity to explain himself” nor was he read his Miranda rights, before being charged with trespassing and held overnight. The Trump campaign later released a statement detailing their lack of involvement. The Houston Police Department also issued a statement, saying that they arrested Thompson at the request of hotel management, while refusing to comment as to whether Thompson was read his Miranda rights.
In France, presidential campaigns are also underway this fall, carrying with them new restrictions on critical media. Reporters from the news website Mediapart and the current affairs show “Quotidien” were denied accreditation when they attempted to access the presidential campaign launch event in mid-September for Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front party. The party’s media spokesperson Alain Vizier said the above media outlets would be banned throughout the presidential election unless they adapt “their attitude towards the National Front and modify their coverage of its activities.”
In Russia, This September also saw the arrest of Denis Korotkov, an award-winning reporter for the independent news website Fontanka, who had recently published a hard-hitting story revealing voter fraud during Russia’s parliamentary elections. St. Petersburg authorities charged Korotkov with “illegally obtaining a ballot,” seemingly willfully ignoring the fact that Korotkov only did so as part of his reporting designed to expose vote rigging. Korotkov’s reporting offered an in-depth look at the practice known as “carousel voting,” which allows for a voter to vote multiple times at different polling stations.
In Uganda, after protesters began demonstrating against incoming President Yoweri Museveni during the run-up to his swearing in, the country’s Information Minister declared that any media outlet offering live coverage of the protests risked having their broadcasts revoked. Social media was widely shut down in the days before Museveni’s inauguration ceremony, reportedly in the interests of “national security.” More recently, the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament has called for the Committee on Rules and Privilege to investigate reporters who criticize the Parliament, aiming to charge them with contempt. Such investigations could essentially criminalize any critical investigation of Parliament or individual legislators.
In Gabon, on August 31, violence erupted following the announcement of the country’s election results, with President Ali Bongo winning reelection. The government responded with a 104-hour total media blackout where internet and SMS connections were cut, and social media remained blocked for days. In the days following the election, the offices of television news organizations Radio-Television Nazareth (RTN) and Tele Plus were both attacked. The chief executive of RTN, Georges Bruno Ngoussi, stated that the offices were attacked by “hooded and heavily armed agents of the security forces.”
In Nigeria, on September 21, state security forces arrested ten journalists and support staff from the independent news site Watchdog Media News who were covering the local gubernatorial elections in Benin, the capital of the southern state of Edo. Watchdog reported that their staffers were “brutalized,” and Taiye Garrick, the editor of Watchdog Media, later explained that witnesses had reported seeing the security forces beat the journalists with barbed wire. An army spokesman later stated that the journalists were arrested on suspicion of being hired “hoodlums” planning to cause mayhem during the election. However, this account is undercut by pictures released by Watchdog Media of its reporters clearly wearing press credentials while reporting in Benin.
These examples from just the past six months demonstrate that media freedoms are far from assured when it comes to coverage of political elections. An informed public is a prerequisite for democratic governance—and a free press is, in turn, an indispensable election-season tool.