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The Inside Story - A Free Press Matters | 150 TRANSCRIPT

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The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters

Episode 150 – June 27, 2024

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This week on The Inside Story…

A wrongfully detained journalist in Russia heads to a closed door trial, facing charges of espionage…

Violence in Ecuador sends journalists seeking safety elsewhere after one of their own gets held up by gunpoint live on air

Plus, artificial intelligence and the challenges it poses for Americans who are heading to the polls this fall

Now on The Inside Story… A Free Press Matters.

A Free Press Matters:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Hi, I’m VOA Press Freedom Editor Jessica Jerreat. Welcome to The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters.

With conflict, repression and censorship driving large numbers of media into exile, we speak with journalists on the front lines: from navigating gang violence in Ecuador, assassination plots targeting Iranian journalists on British and U.S. soil, and repressive policies affecting Afghan media.

We also hear from journalists finding support -- and a sense of community – in exile.

But first we turn to Russia.

A closed trial in a remote city, more than 1,400 kilometers from Moscow. Russia this week is set to put wrongfully detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich on trial for espionage charges seen widely as bogus.

A reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich has been in Russian custody since March 2023 on accusations that he, his employer and the U.S. deny.

Here’s what the State Department says:

Matthew Miller, State Department Spokesperson:

We have been clear from the start that Evan has done nothing wrong. He should never have been arrested in the first place. Journalism is not a crime. The charges against him are false and the Russian government knows that they are false.


Gershkovich is one of two American journalists detained by Russia.

The other—Alsu Kurmasheva—denies the charges against her too, including failing to register as a so-called foreign agent. A dual citizen who works for our sister network Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty in Prague, Kurmasheva has been denied U.S. consular access and has not spoken with her two children in more than a year.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked a dangerous new time for local and foreign journalists. The Kremlin has carried out a campaign of repression including intimidation, threats, expulsions and arrests. For Ricardo Marquina, Marcus Harton narrates this report:

A violent start to the year in Ecuador has many of the country’s journalists seeking safety outside its borders. After being held up at gunpoint live on air, journalist José Luis Calderón moved to Miami to escape an uncertain environment and to gain access to trauma support. Cristina Caicedo Smit has the story:


With a gun to his neck, José Luis Calderón pleads with authorities not to enter the TC Television studios. Footage of the live raid at the Ecuadorian public broadcaster earlier this year traveled around the world.

José Luis Calderón, Journalist:

I had guns pointed at me at all times. They even put a carbine, the muzzle of a carbine, on my neck. An explosive, also, some type of dynamite explosive in my jacket pocket.


The raid by alleged gang members during a live broadcast in Guayaquil city is a first for Ecuadorian media. And Calderón vividly remembers the moments that changed his life — and those of his team.

José Luis Calderón, Journalist:

My colleagues were emotionally devastated. Fathers and mothers who believed they were not going to return home to hug their children.


Even after police made arrests, Calderón remained uneasy.

In Washington, Dagmar Thiel and her nonprofit Fundamedios monitor violations like the TC Television case.

In Ecuador, she says, media confront deteriorating rights and high risks, with threats from armed groups leading to silent zones, or areas where reporters can no longer work.

Dagmar Thiel, Fundamedios:

It's a very dangerous work nowadays. Ecuador was a place where you could freely report. But being now a journalist, it's not easy anymore. In the last one and a half year, we have reported 14 journalists that have decided to go into exile.


Among them is Calderón. Unable to get the support he needed to cope with his trauma, the journalist traveled to the U.S. to seek asylum.

José Luis Calderón, Journalist:

I entered periods of anxiety, and I said ‘No, this can't be.’ And the truth is that I have to get out of here.


Now Calderón is trying to adjust to his new life, away from his country, friends and family.

José Luis Calderón, Journalist:

I am optimistic that things will go in my favor. Maybe someone [will] value my expertise in communication and journalism… And yes, I’m a little scared, worried because we are starting from scratch.


Calderón is safe but Thiel says that back in Ecuador, threats to the media have an impact on society.

Dagmar Thiel, Fundamedios:

So, what we are having is a lack of information and, yes, like in many other countries, the citizens will not have information to know what's happening in their country.


Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa visited Calderón’s newsroom after the raid, and Ecuador renewed commitments to press freedom, including setting up a protection mechanism. However, budget cuts mean such safeguards are not funded in the coming years.

Cristina Caicedo Smit, VOA News.


From assassination plots to stabbings, Iranian journalists are subject to intense risks. But, as Tehran ramps up attacks on the diaspora news outlet Iran International, a team of lawyers work with U.S. officials to better coordinate responses to a tactic known as transnational repression. Here’s Liam Scott:

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Correspondent:

Moving a 24/7 newsroom across an ocean nearly overnight is no easy task. But that’s the situation the Washington-based team of Iran International found themselves in after a series of attacks on their London colleagues forced its British headquarters to temporarily close last year.

Mehdi Parpanchi, Iran International Executive Editor:

Their aim was to stop Iran International TV, and we couldn’t let it happen. We had to do whatever we can to keep the channel on air.


Attacks against the broadcaster have been brash. Foiled assassination plots, a stabbing in London, and threats so serious that a reporter in Sweden moved to a safe house in June. Tehran is believed to be behind these incidents and more.

Mehdi Parpanchi, Iran International Executive Editor:

These kinds of threats are increasing, unfortunately. And I mean, right now, it is mostly targeting Iran International journalists, but there is no reason to believe that it will stop there.


Tehran is one of dozens of governments that engage in tactics known as transnational repression to silence critics outside their own borders.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, Doughty Street Chambers:

Iran for many years targeted journalists on its own soil. But what has started to develop into an industry on a huge scale in Iran has been transnational repression targeting journalists outside the country, using the long arm of the state to try to silence journalists.


Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In Washington, the international legal team supporting Iran International is meeting with lawmakers, White House officials and think tanks to raise awareness. A key issue, they say, is that governments tend to respond to attacks on their own.

Mark Stephens, Howard Kennedy LLP:

It’s time that I think we catch up as states, we make sure that the governments are cooperating, that they’re sharing knowledge.


For Iran International journalists, their families back home are also at risk of retaliation.

Parpanchi says nearly all Iranian journalists he can think of have come under some form of pressure.

Mehdi Parpanchi, Iran International Executive Editor:

Threats can never become normal. No journalist should be subjected to any kind of threats, specifically life-threatening threats.


Named after VOA Persian host Masih Alinejad, the United States already has a law imposing sanctions on those seeking to carry out Iran-backed attacks.

But Gallagher is pressing lawmakers to take a more active role.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, Doughty Street Chambers:

Were it not for brave journalists who, despite the risks, are telling us those stories, we simply wouldn’t know what’s happening within Iran. And that is something which should trouble every single American. And it’s why we all must stand up for freedom of expression, and for the right of journalists to do their job without fear.


While their lawyers look for long-term solutions to keep the team safe, Iran International’s journalists continue their work, broadcasting to audiences inside Iran.

Liam Scott, VOA News.


At a time of declining trust in media, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has been investigating the factors driving the downward trend and what news outlets can do to ensure greater transparency and credibility. From Oxford, Henry Ridgwell speaks with the institute’s director.

HENRY RIDGWELL, VOA Correspondent:

What are the major themes of, of global trust in news that you are detecting?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

What we find is a tendency that as people rely less and less on television and more and more on social media, there is a tendency that this erodes trust in news in general.

And our theory is that this is because, increasingly people see news in a context where it's often contested, by other people or the people sharing it or people commenting on it and the like. And in that sense, it comes across as less authoritative.

When we turn to the question of why we are seeing these changes, part of it has nothing to do with journalism and news in particular. It's about what some scholars call the trust nexus, that when, when people are more skeptical of much of what is in the news — political institutions, businesses, civil society organizations, organized religion — they also tend to become more skeptical of the news.

In some parts of the world there are individual politicians or major political parties who have made the press an enemy and, explicitly and publicly repeatedly attacked journalism and news media. And over time, people who are sympathetic to those politicians or those parties are likely to take a cue from them and begin to think about journalism in a different way.


There is that cohort of people who passively or actively, I suppose, are avoiding news consumption altogether. Are you able to identify ways in which journalists can reconnect?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

People have lots of different reasons for avoiding the news, at least some of the time. Some of these can be very understandable. if you are in a sort of dark and difficult period in your time, you may not want to hear about bad things happening elsewhere in the world.

I think a strong case can be made, that much of journalism has not historically been oriented toward the interests and needs and worldview of younger people, of women, and of people from less privileged backgrounds.

So a starting point can be just taking people's identities seriously, and make sure that, their experience and their worldview and lives are represented, respected and reflected in the news coverage.

There is, I think a important and necessary discussion in journalism about the question of whether traditional professional norms around objectivity and impartiality are always the right norms for every issue or whether there are issues on which journalists need to or ought to take a stance, make clear where they stand, and what the editorial line is on divisive issues, and consequential issues of our time, climate, attempts to subvert election integrity.

But we need to remember that much of the public does not recognize journalists as moral authorities and, basically want journalists to cover the news as neutrally as they can and leave it up to people to make up their own mind.


Journalists fleeing conflict and censorship often struggle to remain working in media. But in Kenya, a hub for exiled reporters is providing legal and immigration support. And—more importantly—it offers a way for them to keep working. From Nairobi, in Kenya, Victoria Amunga has more.


Isra Daud’s job in media came to an abrupt halt in 2023. As a war erupted between rival factions in Sudan, the journalist fled her home in Khartoum.

Isra Daud, Journalist in Exile:

We had to move from our house to another region, because, we stayed like for 10 days, after that we started to hear some news about women getting kidnapped and getting raped. That was, for us, frightening.


Arriving in Kenya last May, Daud had to rebuild her life. But thanks to a media support program, she had a helping hand.

An initiative between the German-based Media in Cooperation and Transition or MiCT and African partners helped enroll her in a hub for exiled media.

She received a MiCT fellowship that includes financial and legal help, and safe working spaces for journalists affected by conflict in Sudan and East Africa. She also received training and connections to media outlets that can publish her work.

Isra Daud, Journalist in Exile:

I wrote three articles and there is supervision of the project. When I send the materials sometimes I get comments like, ‘You should write about this,’ ‘You should focus on this.’ I think it's a good learning process when someone corrects you.


So far, the hub has helped at least 80 journalists globally—15 of them in Kenya. A panel reviews and selects applicants.

Jey Wegner MiCT Fellowship Program:

The fellowship usually runs from three to four months, and the holistic support structure consists of seven concrete modules, which is offered on (an) individual basis. (They) include livelihood support, security consideration, mental and physical health support, integration and legalization offers.


Partners in the program like the International Press Association of East Africa or IPAEA help by setting up press credentials and finding publications willing to pay for articles. They also provide working spaces.

Ventura Kireki, IPAEA Programs Manager:

This is basically a huge chunk of what we are trying to, even continue more especially, expanding to have this co-working space where people can come and even just brainstorm creative ways of doing things, new ways.


Conflict and repression are forcing hundreds of journalists into exile each year, says UNESCO.

Misako Ito, UNESCO Regional Adviser:

You also have journalists who face political repression, leaders’ harassment, censorship, risk of retaliation from criminal groups or simply lack of job opportunities and weakening media landscape.


And in Sudan, UNESCO estimates over 8.5 million people have been displaced in the past year, including journalists like Daud, who hope to return home soon

Until then, media hubs like this one offer support — and some normalcy — to those in exile.

Victoria Amunga, VOA News, Nairobi.


This year, part of being an informed voter is knowing that when it comes on online video, seeing is not necessarily believing. Bad actors are using artificial intelligence to create disinformation in the hopes of swaying voters ahead of the November elections. Here’s a look at how AI is being used in Election 2024.


Artificial intelligence has already made an appearance in this election, as in this computer-generated photo of Donald Trump hugging infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci…

… and this fake robocall of Joe Biden telling New Hampshire voters to skip their primary.

Fake Biden Robocall:

We'll need your help in electing Democrats up and down the ticket.


The timing of electoral deepfakes is what makes them so dangerous, says media expert Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution.

Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institution:

Even 24 hours before the election, someone puts out a deepfake or a piece of disinformation. It's really difficult to fight back, and in a close election, it could make the difference between winning and losing.


Rijul Gupta’s firm DeepMedia helps the Pentagon detect deepfakes, which he says are popular because they are inexpensive and easy to produce.

Rijul Gupta, DeepMedia CEO:

In the end, it takes about 15 minutes to create a deepfake. There are many free services online. If you want to pay for some of the better ones, a 30-second audio clip is maybe two cents.


Attorney and free speech advocate Ari Cohn.

Ari Cohn, TechFreedom:

There's been a lot of talk about Russia, but China also especially is there, fighting in the AI arms race to try and jump ahead.


Cohn says the most sophisticated overseas operations aim to place a piece of political disinformation with influential Americans for them to pass on to others.

The biggest U.S. tech firms and social media platforms have promised some voluntary self-regulation of AI in political campaigns, but no federal laws currently govern the practice.

Ari Cohn, TechFreedom:

It’s very, very difficult to regulate political speech in the United States. The First Amendment protects that core political speech very strongly and for good reason: We don't want the government putting its finger on the scale of elections.


Gupta says much of that difficulty lies in distinguishing between something that is false and something that is a characterization of an issue with which one might not agree. So, how are we to know when something is a political deepfake?

Rijul Gupta, DeepMedia CEO:

The audio quality is bad — that is a hint that it could be AI-generated. It might sound kind of silly or trivial, but actually just looking for those watermarks and being able to find those watermarks quickly in images, audio and video can again filter out a lot. So if you are on a video call with someone and you think they are a deepfake, ask them to spin around in their chair. If they don’t, they might be a deepfake.


Cohn says AI can be used for good in politics. It can allow candidates to reach

diaspora communities in their own languages, and it can give campaigns better insight into voter behavior so they can better tailor their messaging.

For Ivanna Pidborska in Washington, Carolyn Presutti, VOA News.


With opportunities for journalists limited since the Taliban return to power, Farogh Tarin and her family left Afghanistan in pursuit of a better life. Now in Paris, France, the journalist wants to be a voice for those silenced in her home country. Here she is, in her own words:

Farogh Tarin, Afghan Journalist in Exile:

In school I was interested in reciting poetry hosting and public speaking and I was hosting events. I was encouraged by my teachers, family and friends. They were telling me that I had the talent to become a journalist. Fortunately, I was one of the 1000s of girls who could pursue their studies with the support of their families. With the changes in the country, my activities became completely limited.

I was no longer allowed to participate in events and conferences, conduct interviews, covered demonstrations, I had to wear a mask. I was not allowed to enter an event. Exactly twice I witnessed this situation. The first time was when I was child under the Taliban and took my childhood from me.

With the Taliban coming to power in the 1990s, my mother, who was a second-year journalism student could not continue her studies. The same situation has repeated. It was in March 2022 that we left Kabul secretly. After going through some administrative work, we came to France. It is disappointing when you study, work, and then are forced to leave the country. It is very difficult living outside one's country.

Samim Barish, Journalist and Husband:

With the arrival of the Taliban, things become a mess. We have no freedom at all. There were so many restrictions that even a small thing that would err and was against their policy, even on social programs would face harsh treatment in their environment. There was no hope for the future, because there was no space to talk about arts knowledge in literature.

Farogh Tarin, Afghan Journalist in Exile:

Afghanistan is going through the darkest days, not only women, but all people are in a state of confusion and crisis.

To leave Afghanistan, particularly those who then work with transport or media can help the people of Afghanistan. The first problem I'm facing here is the language. We have economic problems. It is difficult, but we hope to achieve our goals. I want to be the voice of the people of Afghanistan and help them.


That’s all for this week. Thank you for joining us on another episode of The Inside Story. For the latest on press freedom, log on to VOA news dot com forward slash press freedom. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook at VOA News. And you can follow me on X formerly Twitter at @jessicajerreat. Catch up on past episodes at our free streaming service, VOA Plus.

I’m Jessica Jerreat. We will see you next week, for The Inside Story.