Freedom of the Press Under Attack – in Germany and Paraguay

The work of journalists has changed worldwide in 2021. Observations from the work of Reporters without Borders and a panel discussion held in Asunción on freedom of the press in Germany and Paraguay.

For us at 'Reporters Without Borders' ('Reporters sans frontières' / RSF), the beginning of a new year is a time to look back at the situation regarding freedom of the press in the world and especially in Germany. Here, the working conditions for journalists during the second year of COVID-19 have been strongly shaped by the pandemic, specifically by the aggressiveness experienced during the so-called 'Querdenker' (lateral thinkers) demonstrations. Already in 2020, we counted at least 65 violent attacks on journalists in the country, a figure which has never been so high, and five times as many as in 2019.

On 5 October 2021, when I took part in the online discussion during the lecture programme on 'Freedom of the Press, Fake News and Data Protection' ('Pressefreiheit, Fake News und Datenschutz') together with the Paraguayan journalist, Andrés Colmán Gutiérrez, it was already clear that we will continue to be intensively involved with this topic. Not a week goes by without reports on new attacks during or on the fringes of demonstrations. These days, we are evaluating and verifying dozens of these cases. How many it will be in the end cannot be foreseen, but one thing is clear: in 2021, the climate towards journalists clearly heated up yet again. On our worldwide ranking list for freedom of the press, Germany dropped from 11th to 13th place among 180 nations.

A Climate of Impunity

Andrés Colmán Gutiérrez and I agreed that neither in Paraguay nor in Germany do journalists experience the greatest danger from the government. Until a few years ago, Colmán Gutiérrez was also a domestic RSF correspondent. He spoke of 19 journalists who have been murdered in Paraguay since the end of the dictatorship in 1989, especially in connection with research on organised crime and drug smuggling in the border region with Brazil. For him, the Mafia is the greatest danger for freedom of the press in Paraguay. However, he also denounced a climate of almost total impunity after violent crimes against journalists because the corrupt judicial authorities did not investigate independently, a phenomenon which we have, unfortunately, heard of in many Latin American countries.

On our ranking list for freedom of the press, Paraguay ranks 100th among 180 countries, i.e. in the middle of the field worldwide. Our Jahresbilanz der Pressefreiheit 2021 [Annual Report on Freedom of the Press for 2021; in German] shows that, unfortunately, the situation in many other countries is significantly worse: as of 1 December, 488 journalists around the world were in jail, approx. 20 per cent more than in the previous year.

A group of journalists protest the killing of their colleague from ABC Color, Pablo Medina, and ask for an investigation into the case in Asunción, Paraguay, on 18 October 2014. Medina was killed in Canindeyu, Paraguay, on 16 October 2014 and his assistant, Antonia Almada, two days later. © Photo: picture alliance / dpa / Andres Cristaldo

Since our first Annual Report in 1995, there have never been so many people arbitrarily arrested simply because of their work as a journalist, often under inhuman conditions. This figure increased greatly, especially in China (127), Myanmar (53) and Belarus (32).

During the past ten years, approx. 850 media professionals around the world were killed because of their work.

But there are also rays of hope: in 2021, 46 media professionals were killed because of their work, a figure which has not been so low since 2003. Nevertheless: on average, one journalist is killed almost every week in connection with their profession. During the past ten years, approx. 850 media professionals around the world were killed because of their work. Most of them lost their lives outside war zones while reporting on organised crime, corruption, the abuse of power or the violation of human rights. Most of these crimes remain unpunished. In Paraguay, a journalist last suffered a violent death in February 2020: the Brazilian, Leo Veras.

The greatest danger: digital surveillance

In recent years, the Internet has brought about a new level of repression in many countries around the world. On the one hand, it enables new forms and dimensions of freedom of the press and information, but on the other hand, digital surveillance is one of the greatest dangers for journalists and their sources today. The fact that there is a global interdependence between spy companies, democratic governments and autocratic regimes was made clear by the spectacular revelations of the Israeli surveillance software, 'Pegasus'. Apart from targeted surveillance, mass surveillance is also increasingly eroding digital source protection.

During the online discussion, it was emphasised how important protection against surveillance is for international journalism. In this connection, the ruling obtained by RSF from the German Federal Constitutional Court in May 2020 was a success: according to this, the surveillance of foreign journalists outside Germany by the German Foreign Intelligence Service is bound by Germany's constitution. What is worrying, however, is that a large number of the journalists in Germany and worldwide, probably also in Paraguay, underestimates the risk of surveillance. Through our work, we know of numerous cases in which colleagues ran into danger after they had been spied on by governments, authorities or other actors.

But the media comes under pressure not only from governments, secret services and authorities: for the past several years – and even more so since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis – doubts regarding the independence of the media are being articulated more loudly in public, especially in Western democracies. Apparently, a greater diversity of opinion can also lead to increased doubts regarding fundamental values and rights such as freedom of the press.

Christian Mihr (2nd from the left), Managing Director of 'Reporters Without Borders', and Ulf Buermeyer, Chairman of the Society for Civil Rights (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte) in front of the German Federal Constitutional Court with a symbolic octopus between them on which the letters 'BND' (Bundesnachrichtendienst / German Foreign Intelligence Service) can be seen. The court’s First Senate heard the arguments regarding the powers of surveillance which, for the first time since 2017, were regulated by law. The plaintiffs are of the opinion that this would open the door to mass surveillance for no reason at all. © Photo: picture alliance/dpa / Uli Deck

On the value of solidarity

One aspect, which I learned to appreciate even more during the discussion with Andrés Colmán Gutiérrez and the Paraguayan guests: solidarity with the colleagues within the journalist community in Paraguay who are attacked is significantly less pronounced than here in Germany. This is also the case in other Latin American countries, and it is due, among other things, to the fact that the unions for journalists in Paraguay, which could organise such solidarity, are much, much weaker. In Germany, however, the growing number of attacks on journalists has, as I see it, strengthened their solidarity.

Just a few weeks ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two media professionals: the Filipino journalist, Maria Ressa, CEO and co-founder of 'Rappler', an investigative medium, and Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of 'Novaya Gazeta', an independent Russian newspaper which criticises the government. This was an extremely encouraging sign and one which was urgently required: if the human right to freedom of opinion and of the press is important to us, we must firmly defend the right to a free press, not only under totalitarian regimes, but also in democratic countries such as Germany and Paraguay.

Maria Ressa (left) and Dmitry Muratov (right) embrace each other during the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December 2021. © Photo: picture alliance / NTB / Heiko Junge
About the Author
Portrait of Christian Mihr
Christian Mihr
Journalist, human rights activist and expert for international media policy

Christian Mihr is a journalist, human rights activist and expert on international media policy. He has been the executive director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) since 2012. He studied journalism, Latin American studies and political science in Eichstätt and Santiago de Chile. Mihr's interests lie particularly in the topics of internet surveillance and censorship circumvention, internet governance, media pluralism, as well as intelligence control in the digital age. He has already worked as an expert in various committees at the Deutscher Bundestag.

Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government

Experts from politics, academia, culture and the media provide up-to-date and multi-faceted information about Germany in lectures and panel discussions. The ifa organises the Federal Government's lecture programme together with the German embassies and consulates abroad. It is aimed at multipliers from civil society in these countries. Find out more on the ifa website.