How can journalists counter the ‘Dictators’ Handbook’?

Now members of the American media can learn from journalists in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes

By Padma B.

13 December 2022: “There is a world war against journalists and the weapon of choice is disinformation”, comments veteran journalist Kathy Keily. Not only that, around the world there is a ‘Dictator’s Handbook,’ she adds, advocating for journalists “to develop our own handbook”.

Drawing on her forty years of experience as a reporter and editor for regional and national newspapers in the USA, Keily, currently the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, believes there is a lot journalists in the United States can learn from colleagues in other countries. One of these lessons is how to retain professionalism, producing fact-based stories that mobilise against despotism. 

Global phenomenon

Journalists all over the world, not just in Southasia, are facing severe repression that makes it difficult to carry out their jobs, noted Keily. She was speaking at a hybrid discussion titled Journalism Under Attack: Fightback #HoldTheLine, on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2022. The meeting held at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts was also streamed live on Facebook, organised by the Boston South Asian Coalition (BSAC) and South Asia Peace Action Network or Sapan.

Video recording of the journalists’ #HoldTheLine discussion in Cambridge MA, 10 Dec. 2022


Keily highlighted the case of the Filipina journalist and 2021 Nobel laureate Maria Ressa , whose news site Rappler exposed many crimes committed by the Duuarte led government.  Ressa is facing severe repression and “may end up with a long prison sentence with fabricated charges” for speaking truth to power. 

“We are journalists, and we will not be intimidated. We will shine the light. We will hold the line” – Ressa’s words quoted by Keily are a major source of inspiration for journalists resisting intimidation and state terror. 

The International Federation of Journalists  reports that 67 journalists and media staff have been killed globally in 2022 an increase from 47 in 2021. The Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) notes that in 80% of the cases of journalists killed for their work globally, the perpetrators are not punished.

Kathy Keily joining online from University of Missouri: “To err is human but to correct is being professional”. Photo courtesy: Manisha Sharma and Padma B.

Besides Keily, the online panelists were Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, the region’s oldest English language daily and Steve Butler, a former foreign correspondent who works with the Committee to Protect Journalists in Washington DC. 

Sheikh Sabiha Alam, senior reporter at daily Prothom Alo newspaper, Dhaka, currently a Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University was in person at the venue along with discussion moderator Beena Sarwar, journalist and editor from Pakistan. Sarwar, a founding editor of weekly The News on Sunday, Pakistan, was on the launch team of Geo TV, the country’s first 24/7 news channel, and is also a Nieman Fellow, 2006.

Journalists in Southasia work under some of the most dangerous conditions. They face all kinds of pressure, from intimidation, smear campaigns and court cases to physical violence, even murder. There has been a multifold increase in such attacks over the past years, note the event organisers. “The ruling elites in South Asia are deploying all their weapons to suppress information,” Besides the pressures mentioned above, tools include wholesale corporate buyouts of the media firms.

Journalists in Kashmir face a particularly difficult situation, said Anuradha Bhasin, speaking from Stanford University where she is a Knight Fellow this year.  Journalism has always been under threat because of the peculiar nature of the politics in Kashmir, but since 2019, “it has become not just harder to function, it is becoming nearly impossible for them to continue their work.” 

Knight Fellow Anuradha Bhasin addresses the gathering online: Journalists in Kashmir face a particularly difficult situation. Photo courtesy: Manisha Sharma and Padma B.

“The government is now employing a mixed bag of harsh censorship and covert censorship to prevent any kind of critical voices coming out in the public domain,” she added.

Draconian laws

Democracy and press freedom go hand-in-hand, noted Steve Butler. You can’t have  one without the other. He highlighted the digital security law in Bangladesh that is being used to harass and intimidate journalists. In India, sedition laws are being used to smear journalists, besides additional charges being slapped against journalists who are critical of government policies. In Pakistan journalists are more often killed than jailed – “difficult to prove to who is behind this”. 

Butler himself was detained by the federal investigative agency of Pakistan when he landed in the country to attend a human rights conference in Lahore, in honour of the late advocate Asma Jahangir in October.

Steve Butler of CPJ, Committee to Protect Journalists: The situation is dire all around. Photo courtesy: Manisha Sharma and Padma B.

Sabiha Alam elaborated further on how the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh has seriously curtailed freedom of expression. Investigative journalists, especially in rural areas, face surveillance and attacks. Media ownership is in the hands of businesses and lawmakers. 

The online audience included journalists two more Nieman Fellows at Harvard this year – Fahim Abed, a reporter for the New York Times from Afghanistan, who had to leave the country after the Taliban takeover last year. He spoke about the dire situation there where there is no independent press. 

Ashish Dikshit, editor BBC Marathi, noted that while the situation in India is not as black and white as it appears, journalists who are critical of the government are being taken off the TV channels and reduced to tweeting and running YouTube channels. While millions used to watch them on TV, now they have a significantly smaller number of viewers. “What is reaching the majority (of viewers) is propaganda”.

From Kathmandu, senior journalist Namrata Sharma talked about how the state interferes with freedom of press by invoking laws that protect the ‘sovereignty’ of the country. She also flagged the threats women journalists specifically face, including sexual harrassment and trolling that targets their gender.

Authenticate news, fight collectively

Disinformation is the crisis of the times and journalists need to be proactive in combatting it. There is a dire need for fact-based news. But how can people tell if the news they are consuming comes from a trustworthy source, asked an audience member. 

A media outlet that is transparent about its mistakes, for example by including a corrections page in its website, is likely to be one that readers or viewers can trust, said Kathy Keily. “To err is human but to correct is being professional”. 

Journalists on the panel also noted that one of the threats to journalists emerges when media ownership lies in the hands of powerful corporations who work in cahoots with governments.

The crisis is widespread. An audience member at the Democracy Center brought the focus to Africa, pointing out that while Angola and Cape Verde are democracies, the state-owned press silences journalists who critique government policies. We need collective resistance against this global phenomenon of attacks against journalists, he said. 

A local activist commented on capitalist democracies moving towards fascism. A retired manager brought up the murder of a Pakistani journalist in Kenya. A journalist from Brazil talked about the situation in her home country.

Another audience member, an Ambedkarite activist from Hyderabad, India, pointed to silver linings. The situation is not all dire. Social media is a source of disinformation, but also enables people to provide facts and counter disinformation. 

There was general agreement that while there are no quick fixes, not only journalists but also anyone who uses social media must continue to fight disinformation, and create networks to protect each other and help sustain the work that journalists do.

Padma B. is a healthcare worker based in the greater Boston area who attended the discussion as a BSAC volunteer.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature available to use with credit to Sapan News Network.

Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’.

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