By Kate Hoving
“The working assumption that we're going to be discussing and exploring today is that press freedoms are crucial or foundational to democracy, and that democracy is foundational to human rights. So it doesn't get more important than this.”
Nancy Combs, then-director the Human Security Law Center at William & Mary Law School, made the stakes clear as she opened the symposium the National Security Law Center and the Reves Center for International Studies, in collaboration with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism Center at WHRO, presented last November.
The symposium, “Press Freedom Under Attack: 21st Century Threats to Journalists and Democracy,” was comprised of three panels, bringing together a documentary filmmaker, working journalists and media experts to discuss their work and the challenges they face, both shared and unique. The panelists were:
Keynote: Tikhon Dzyadko
Dzyadko is a Russian journalist, television presenter, and Editor-in-Chief of Dozhd TV (also known as TV Rain), which was one of the few independent television news stations in Russia. Through his role at Dozhd TV, Dzyadko has interviewed notable public figures, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In March 2022, Dzyadko made headlines when he suspended Dozhd TV operations after Russia’s media regulator blocked its website for spreading “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel.” The media regulator’s response was prompted by Dohzd TV’s critical commentary on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Rachel Grady is an award-winning American documentary filmmaker, known for her films Jesus Camp (2006), One of Us (2017), and Love Fraud (2020). Grady’s most recent project, Endangered (2022), details the threats faced by journalists in the United States and around the world.
Under the threat of persecution, Haitian-born Carl-Philippe Juste and his politically active family were forced to flee their homeland in 1965, eventually settling in Miami’s Haitian community. Since 1991, he has worked as an award-winning photojournalist for the Miami Herald. Juste has covered national and international stories for the Herald, including assignments in Haiti, Cuba, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As part of his ongoing independent work, in 1998, Juste co-founded Iris Photo Collective. In 2016, Juste won a prestigious Knight Arts Challenge grant to complete Havana, Haiti: Two Cultures, One Community, a book and exhibit of photographs and essays about Cubans’ and Haitians’ lives and shared humanity. In 2019, Juste opened IPC ArtSpace in 2019 to further engage the public with the arts, and he won the Oolite Arts’ “The Ellies” award that same year and, again, in 2021.
Joel Simon is a journalist and regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Simon served as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (2006–2021), and during his tenure, CPJ was awarded the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights and the 2018 Chatham House Prize. He has authored two books: The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (2014) and We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages, and Ransom (2018).
Martin PlautMartin Plaut is a South-African journalist and academic specializing in African conflict. Plaut worked as a BBC News journalist from 1984 to 2012 and currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies of the University of London.
Natalie Southwick is the Latin America and the Caribbean program coordinator at the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) . Prior to joining CPJ as its Americas research associate in 2017, she was based in Bogotá, Colombia, where she was a member of Witness for Peace’s international accompaniment team, a reporting specialist with ACDI/VOCA’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous program, and the editor of a website focused on Latin American news. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Reporter, InSight Crime, and RioOnWatch, among other publications. She has a master’s degree in international human rights from the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Tyree is a Virginia native and the senior director and co-founder of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. For more than 30 years, his cameras and pen have carried him to report on stories on nearly every continent. His award-winning projects have helped shape policy and spur awareness of important issues. His work has been published in hundreds of the world’s leading periodicals and broadcast networks including the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and Deutsche Welle. He earned a graduate degree in visual communication from Ohio University and BS in journalism from James Madison University.
“The speakers bring extraordinary breadth and depth to the question of press freedom. We're about to engage in meaningful ways with a keynote speaker who has given voice to opposition leaders and with renowned panelists who have worked in the U.S, Haiti, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia. We will hear about and discuss the challenge to press freedom, and we'll learn more about the ways in which these challenges share certain characteristics,” Teresa Longo, executive director of the Reves Center, explained in her introduction. “The very presence of so many talented journalists and scholars who are here today, indicates that although the challenges to press freedom and democracy are serious and strong, so too are the courageous responses to those challenges.”
Rachel Sleiman J.D. ‘23 at William & Mary Law School, one of the symposium organizers, introduced the keynote address by Tikhon Dzyadko. His message was blunt.
“If we are speaking about the situation with the press, freedom, and Russia, the simple answer to the question—‘How free is the press in Russia?’—the answer is very simple. There is no press freedom in Russia,” he began. “The more interesting answer will take more time.”
And so Dzyadko put the recent events in some historical context.
“In the ‘90s, there was a real press freedom in Russia. There was democracy. It was not like grown up democracy, but during the nineties we had a lot of attempts to build a democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as a part of this democracy we had an attempt to build in the environment for a free press, which can influence the situation in the country, when it’s being listened to by the people in power.”
According to Dzyadko, the change came in 2000 when Vladimir Putin became president.
“Three months before he was elected, no one knew who he was. He was a product of the media, of television, so he perfectly understood that the media could destroy him as easily as they created him. So, one of the first things after he became the President of the Russian Federation, he started to limit the media.”
By 2010, Dzyadko pointed out almost all independent media were under control of the government or by companies or businessmen affiliated with the government. And that was the year Dzyadko and his partners established TV Rain, an independent station. “TV was still a very important device for Russian people, but there was nothing to watch on TV, only propaganda and some stupid shows,” he recalls. “So, we decided to create a new TV station with normal values and with a normal attitude to the viewers.”
TV Rain filled a need and was increasingly finding an audience. By 2022 they had around 18 million views in Russia, more than 10 percent of the population. Their website got around five visitors per month, and they had a robust social media presence.
The government never stopped applying pressure on TV Rain, even designating it a foreign agent to try to undermine their credibility, but they were holding their own.
And then Putin started the invasion into Ukraine.
“We were broadcasting 24/7 about the war in Ukraine. We had reporters in Ukraine. We were showing all these terrible images of Russian rockets bombing civilian houses in Ukrainian cities, and of course the government was not happy with this fact, so on the fifth day of the war, Russian lawmakers proposed a new law that is actually two laws,” Dzyadko explained. “The first law is about so-called fake news information about Russian military activities in Ukraine. The second law is about the discreditation of Russian army in Ukraine. For example, if the Russian minister of defense is saying that the Russian army is only attacking military objects and you are reporting that the Russian military is attacking houses of civilians and killing civilians in Ukraine, then you are spreading fake news information about the Russian military, and you are discrediting Russian military in Ukraine.”
Two days after enacting the laws, the government blocked both TV Rain as well as thousands of other websites.
“We understood that we had two choices. The first choice was to become a part of a news department of the Russian Ministry of defense and to only spread their information about how wonderful activities of the Russian army in Ukraine are and how everything is good. Or the second choice was to continue working as we've been working over these last 12 years and go to jail for up to 15 years. We decided that we need to stop operating, that we need to leave the country and continue working from abroad because it became absolutely impossible to work in Russia.”
Dzyadko and his wife, news director at TV Rain started received threatening phone calls and text messages in Telegram and WhatsApp. They also got a visit from Russian police. He and his family and colleagues were no longer safe.
They left Russia and relaunched the TV station in three locations: Riga, Latvia; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Amsterdam. And they continue their mission to spread independent information for the Russian audience. They’re also reaching a world audience of more than 25 million viewers.
“The path of TV Rain is more or less the path of all the independent media in Russia these days. We know the eagerness of the Russian audience, the Russian people, to get independent and real information about what is happening in Russia and what is happening in Ukraine and what is happening in other parts of the world is very high. It's very big. I think that continuing doing what we—TV Rain and other Russian independent outlets— do is very important for the Russian audience, is very important for peace in Ukraine and very important for the world.”
Threats against journalists are everywhere
The first panel following Dzyadko’s keynote was organized around the HBO documentary co-produced and -directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, “Endangered: Journalism in Jeopardy.” Grady as well as Joel Simon and Carl Juste, both featured in the documentary, made up the panel.
She began the discussion by explaining their idea of “endangered” changed during production, which began in 2020. “At its inception it meant ‘They're endangered of being silenced by being jailed or killed or physically threatened.’ But now it means the ability to report the news is endangered because your paper is closed; or because politicians or leadership--people you trust-- are saying that you're a liar, or that you're spreading fake news, or your audience thinks you're lying.”
Juste agreed. “I think the environment in which the press operates is almost like a powder keg. We can't do anything right. The left gets us because we're being not hard enough on the right; and the right doesn't like us.”
As a breaking news reporter for the Miami Herald, he has a unique perspective. “I get to write the first draft on history. At times you get caught in the middle, and it is difficult, but that's where we need to be. We make sense of the information that we're receiving; we deliver that information; and we have a role in how that information is digested.”
If there is a lingering sense of American exceptionalism, that the U.S. is somehow immune from attacks on freedom of information, the documentary and panelists dispelled that notion. The dangers are everywhere.
Juste’s father was a prominent journalist in Haiti, and he saw firsthand attacks of violence and character assassinations against journalists. “I think that is one of the things that echoes in this film over and over and over again--we are warning open societies to be very, very careful, because if we don't read the signs, I don't think we can navigate this intersection that we're going through now.”
Follow the money: The economics of a free press
On the frontlines, Juste also sees how the business of journalism affects the practice of it. Scarcity of resources can have the almost same end effect as state censorship.
“We're doing far more with so much less. The movie speaks to that, because you see everyone multitasking--I am shooting; I am sending; I am posting.”
The financial limitations devastating local coverage take a even greater toll on international coverage. “Young journalists are taking more and more risks for less and less money, because there is no money in the news industry,” Plaut said. “When I started working on Africa each major British newspaper had three correspondents in Africa, plus one in Cairo; today you're lucky if they have one.”
Chris Tyree agreed and added another angle in what he called financial polarizing, or “the systematic chipping away” at the core of journalism. “The wealthy have control of the information. We see hedge funds chopping down local newspapers. Money is critical. Where does that money come from? And I think that is a huge headwind that the journalism world and societies who favor democracy really need to address. It's certainly critical in the United States.”
The limitations on resources are also the byproduct of marketing strategies.
Joel Simon explained some of the editorial decisions that are the result of financial decisions, using Juste’s employer as an example. He was familiar with the Miami Herald having covered Latin America himself for many years.
“The Miami Herald back in the day played a very particular role because of the community that it served in Miami, and because it had a really significant contribution and commitment to covering Latin America,” explained Simon. “It was one of the leading regional papers covering the region.”
But market forces have changed
“Now, the Miami Herald doesn't have those kinds of resources. It's not able to do that in the same way. Also, the market for the Miami Herald has changed, and this is true of every local newspaper everywhere in in the world.”
“The objectivity was a marketing strategy,” Simon continued. “You know you wanted everyone in Miami to read it, and so you put the news in A—the section designated as news—and the idea was that, regardless of your perspective and your political views and your politics via the Castro and Cuba, it would be presented as a fair presentation of reality.”
News was clearly news, and it was in the opinion section, “where disagreements were hashed out.”
“But that's broken down in the current climate. We consume news in ways that are fragmented online. What's news and what's opinion are all mixed up and jumbled,” said Simon. “Now if people don't agree with the Herald, they have their own sources of information that they share and reinforce the way they view the world.”
This fragmentation of information has brought us to where we are. “We're in a terrible position in terms of the attacks on journalists in terms of the way we understand and engage with information, in the way we use it to shape the political discourse.”
Media intimidation in all its forms: The view on the ground
Panelists were also able to share first-person reports on what it’s like to be a journalist in war zones and repressive regimes and increasingly in the U.S.
Martin Plaut, who had been covering the war in Tigray, expressed his frustration that although hundreds of thousands of people had died in the war—most of them civilians--because the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments prevented journalists from going to the front the story got inadequate attention around the world. “That's the kind of challenge there is in in trying to report these things. The people who I have the greatest respect for are not people like myself, who go in, and can come out—I have a European passport—but all the local journalists who sweat their guts out day after day under the most difficult circumstances for a pittance, and who are frequently beaten up or killed. They are the people who are the real bloody heroes in all of this, and they are the people I’ve always relied on.”
Natalie Southwick concurred. “I’m glad that Martin raised the point about local journalists, because that's really what we focus on more than anything else at the Committee to Protect Journalists. The majority of the cases that we document--the cases of journalists who are threatened, confronted with deadly violence, and killed in the course of their work--tend to be local journalists, because they are the ones that are literally knocking on doors. They're the ones that are looking at what the mayor of a small town is doing, that are talking on their radio show about allegations of corruption. And the people who have power in that place know where they live. They know where their children go to school. They have a lot more leverage over them to be able to make those kinds of threats.”
According to Southwick this has been the deadliest year ever for journalists in Mexico and Haiti, and they are seeing more and more journalists victimized by the legal system in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
In spite of the threats, local reporters throughout Central and South America continue reporting on the ground. “These are small community radio stations, a lot of indigenous radio stations and media outlets, many of which are broadcasting in the languages of the communities in which the reporters live and may be the only source of information for that community, especially if folks don't speak Spanish or Portuguese.”
Tyree marveled at the kind of bravery the local reporters show by continuing to try to tell the truth. “I can't even imagine what the journalists must be going through in Nicaragua. The daily waking up, wondering if they're going to jail, if they're going to be shot at. Yet they still risk that because they know deep in their hearts that what they're doing is important--that they believe that every person should have individual freedoms granted to them.”
These local journalists depend on their personal and professional relationships. “They emphasized that the people who are their sources trust you on an individual basis. And so, when you're having that interaction, people aren't necessarily thinking about ‘the media.’ they're thinking, ‘Oh, I know this person. I know who they are. I know that they're going to take my word seriously,’ whether they see you in a market and recognize your voice from being on the radio or they know they went to school with your kid. That kind of level of personal trust and confidence is vital, especially in scenarios where there is tight state control of the media; where there are potential repercussions for people for not just being journalists, but for speaking to journalists.”
Who are today’s journalists?
This notion of the difference in trust of the individual journalist versus ‘the media’ is a growing problem and a concern for anyone working in journalism. What is journalism? Who qualifies as a journalist? Does it even matter?
The outlet doesn’t necessarily make the difference. “I know many of us have moved away from Facebook [in the U.S.], but there's still a very big market in a lot of places,” Southwick noted.
“We've run into cases of journalists who have been arrested, and authorities say, ‘Oh, well, they're not a journalist.’ So is it the mode of distribution that determines whether one is a journalist?
Although Juste works at a newspaper, he understands the need to find the most effective ways "to tell people's stories and narratives and speak truth to power.”
“We're not in the 1950s anymore. We need to meet people where they are, and that means it is via Twitter. It is via Facebook. It is via a website. Or if it's a hard cover, or if it's a broadsheet, we need to meet people where they are, because if we create a vacuum, then the things that come and fill up that space may not be in our best interests as a democracy.”
And he knows that this will constantly evolve. “The way we present information will change. I don't know what's it’s going to be fifty years from now, but I do know that whatever journalism becomes, the first amendment, the freedom of the press, to me is the foundation.”
Does objectivity require neutrality?
In addition to finding the best method of communication, the panelists all agreed there can be a struggle to reach an audience. And as much as there’s a need to establish trust with sources, there is an ever growing need to establish trust and credibility with that audience. And part of the discussion dealt with whether of not having an opinion or point of view takes away from the journalist’s voice.
Right off the bat, Grady wanted to make clear that, “What I do is not journalism. I decided not to be a journalist. I went to school for it, but I didn't want to follow those rules, and documentaries, I think, are different.”
But Simon disagreed with her definition. “You may not consider yourself a journalist, but I consider you one, and if I were still at CPJ, I would, because you have a point of view. I started out because I wanted to cover human rights violations of Latin America and expose them. And that was what motivated me.”
He continued: “I’m committed to the facts, but I've always had a point of view. I don't think that disqualifies you in any way. This isn't supposed to be a commercial for the documentary, but it really lets the voices of the people chronicling shine through, and there's a certain inherent respect for those voices and a willingness to listen that Rachel and her co-director Heidi are asking the audience to engage with and challenge in the audience.”
Chris Tyree, who currently works in Virginia, described what he sees as his role. “Our job as journalists is to give citizens the information they need, so that they can make informed decisions about the way they live their lives. And they're going to perceive some of that news differently, obviously.” What troubles him is seeing increasingly in the U.S. the kind of press stifling that he has seen in other countries he’s worked in, like Sudan. “We see very powerful people in charge of media use that as a weapon to demonize the legitimate work of journalism.”
His concern is reaching an audience and getting their trust. “How do I get to the people who can view my work on the platform? And how do I get them to understand that what I’m sharing with them is trustworthy, when they've been bombarded for almost two decades [with accusations] that I’m an enemy.”
For Tyree, establishing that credibility means constant outreach into the community he serves, “being a little more vociferous in my community, going into the different areas around my state and letting them know that I am a journalist, and that what I’m doing is really for them. I'll give them the information. I'll show them how I got that information, and they can make their own determination. But when we have oppressive regimes, it makes that so much harder.”
Duty to audience
Southwick added another element to the search for credibility. “It’s also a question of within a particular society, whose voices do we respect? Who does the audience look to as an authority figure and source of information? And perhaps also as important as whom the audience looks to, is whom does the journalist serve?”
In recounting an incident when he was reporting a story on radio for the BBC, Plaut explained that even when he and his bosses disagreed, he felt he had to tell the full story. “You have to make a decision. Who are you really serving? Are you serving the organization, or are you serving your audience? And my view was always the same. My first duty is to my audience.”
But putting the audience first is becoming increasingly difficult. In part, because journalists are not always viewed as sources of the truth. Delegitimizing journalism, as Southwick points us, “allows authority figures, both authoritarians and others, to consolidate control over information and to consolidate control over reality. They get to define the narrative, and so that serves them.”
Simon explained, “What I never thought would happen is governments and political forces that have always sought to influence the information space are out-competing the media for eyeballs because they present news and information in a way that resonates with their audiences. Journalists are just considered one more actor in the information space that are constantly being attacked and besieged by forces using information strategies to undermine their work.”
Journalism as the cornerstone of democracy
“I don't think we can overstate that enough: the ability to make an informed decision is the building block of being an active citizen and participating in democratic society,” said Southwick. “It’s structured around people being able to bring in their own points of view and to participate. When you don't have accurate information, when you can't rely on the information that's coming to you in order to make a decision about yourself, your political choices, and your life, it removes that opportunity for you to participate in a democratic process.”
Southwick added, “I think people don't always make the connection. ‘Oh, journalists, they're reporting, and that's great. I can read their articles,’ but they’re not really thinking through what that information stream looks like, and what that enables [the reporting]. For instance, both autocratic regimes and plenty of nominally democratic governments are restricting access to information and online spaces, which is, increasingly a way to kind of exert control.“
And with such a fundamental role in a democratic society, the question then arises, should it be so vulnerable to market forces or in the hands of the wealthy?
Grady is clear on her opinion. “I think [journalism] needs to be looked at like a social service at this point more than just a money maker. I think there have to be different kinds of revenue models.”
“I’m thinking about this as a more systemic kind of challenge,” agrees Simon. “And the way that Rachel frames it is exactly right, which is that journalism is a civic institution, and we need to make sure that people everywhere in the world have access to the essential information that they need to make informed decisions and demand accountability.”
Where do we go from here?
Interestingly, although journalists often see and recount some of the worst aspects of the human condition, a consistent theme throughout the symposium was a sense of hope and belief in what they are doing. Even, though as Juste acknowledges, it’s not something they have control over. “We cannot fight it alone. This is not a press issue. This is a society issue.”
Simon explained that he sees hopefulness as an inherent quality of a journalist. “You have to believe in the ability of people to in a fundamental way engage with information, and to use that information to shape their own society. So that's a fundamentally optimistic exercise, and you can't do what Carl does every day if you don't believe that.”
Although he was not on the last panel of the day, Juste’s closing remarks summed up eloquently the hope and spirit of the symposium:
“I don't want to be pessimistic, because, as a journalist, I’m trying to make ice in hell sometimes. I do it every day. I get up, put the paper together, get stuff on the web. So many things go wrong, and you try to make a bad situation a little bit better. This is a battle we can win. It really is. But we all have to be brave, and we cannot sit on some past template.
“I know the power of a candle when things are dark. Trust me. This film was a candle in a very dark time globally, personally and in my community, and I will hold that candle up and protect that flame as long as I can.
"So I’m not pessimistic. I’m actually very optimistic.