We are safer, but journalism faces new threats in 2022

By Aidan White, President of the Ethical Journalism Network, Honorary Advisor to the Fetisov Journalism Awards

The good news for news media in 2022 is that journalism is safer than it has ever been. Figures for the targeting and killing of media staff last year fell dramatically. There were 45 deaths, still far too many, but it is one of the lowest counts since the annual reporting of media murders began 30 years ago.

This fall may be explained to a degree by the impact of Covid, but it is also a result of decades of relentless campaigning by the International Federation of Journalists and others for international action to combat impunity and to make journalism safer.

Elsewhere, the news is not good for press freedom and journalists’ rights. As 2022 unfolds, the threats to journalism are becoming more evident.

In Hong Kong, for example, 2021 ended with the closure of a Chinese-language outlet, Stand News, which was shut down after 200 police officers raided its office and detained seven current and former employees. The arrests came a day after Jimmy Lai, the former owner of the popular tabloid Apple Daily, and six of its former journalists, faced new charges. The paper was closed down last year.

On 3 January Citizen News an independent Chinese-language news outlet said it was closing in the face of a deteriorating media environment and concerns for the safety of its staff. A day later, another outlet, Mad Dog Daily, also closed. 

This intense campaign against independent journalism follows the introduction of a controversial National Security Law in the summer of 2020 which critics say stifles dissent.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, says the closure of news media is not having a “chilling effect” on press freedom, but a recent survey by Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club found that 84 per cent of people asked thought the situation had deteriorated since the introduction of the new law and some admitted to more self-censorship.

At the same time in recent months there has been an exodus of journalists and editors from across the territory which has alarmed free speech campaigners.

China expert Jemimah Steinfeld, from the London-based Index on Censorship told The Guardian: “It’s hard to believe today that until only recently Hong Kong was the place that journalists at foreign media went to if they wanted to report more freely on China. It’s devastating.”

The crisis in Hong Kong is the latest sign of how press freedom and free journalism is under pressure from authoritarian regimes across the globe.

In Asia, for example, dozens of journalists have been jailed since last year’s military takeover in Myanmar, new laws controlling news have been implemented in Thailand and, in the Philippines, the most major broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced to shut down.

In Europe, the threat of interference from populist and hardline politicians is putting more pressure on newsrooms with continuing problems facing independent journalism in Turkey, Russia and some countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Everywhere, increasing polarisation in politics and public life as well as so-called “culture wars” provide an enormous challenge for news media striving to maintain ethical balance in their reporting.

In the UK this problem exploded on to front pages in the first days of 2022 with media coverage of the acquittal on January 5 of four protesters who pulled down the statue of a racist slave-owner and dumped it in Bristol harbour.

At the time the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called it a “criminal act” but the action triggered an international debate over statues and memorials that fail to reflect the multi-cultural nature of the modern world.

The four were part of a crowd during a Black Lives Matter protest, but the jury found them not guilty of causing criminal damage suggesting a nuanced change in public understanding of so-called vandalism of public property.

The verdict sparked outrage with some tabloid newspapers and senior Conservatives expressing fury at the outcome. The statements of the protesters were derided as “woke platitudes” by the Daily Mail. Other papers referred to the four as “vandals” even though legal experts say the verdict follows similar cases where juries have found environmental and anti-war campaigners were justified in damaging property to prevent greater crimes.

But we can expect more of this “culture war” narrative around diversity issues from media in 2022, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which became a global phenomenon as tens of millions around the world joined protests over the killing of George Floyd by an American police officer in May 2020.

Journalists need to be on their guard. They need to avoid being seen as cheerleaders for prejudice and they should remember that racism as a weapon of prejudice and discrimination against minorities is not historically static and, as British academic Alistair Bonnett points out, not something that is uniquely western, European and white.

The continuing plight of Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups suffering discrimination in the north-western region of Xinjiang in China, for example, or the targeting of black African migrants in the Arab world, are evidence that racism is an enduring and shameful problem across the globe that media need to call out wherever it raise its ugly face.

Elsewhere, the growing tensions between Russia and NATO countries around the Ukraine and the noise from other regional conflicts will continue to challenge the quality of journalism’s much-maligned but essential commitment to impartiality.

These are some of the stories in 2022 that will put test the professionalism of news media, but perhaps the biggest test of all will be how journalists can build trust with the public to offset interference from politicians and others.

In the end the best protection will come from keeping faith with the ethical principles of the job – reporting in context, keeping our personal biases in check, and sticking with fact-based journalism.