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Journalists Honored for Commitment to Press Freedom

Rise in Legal Harassment of Media a Focus at Press Freedom Awards
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WATCH: Rise in Legal Harassment of Media a Focus at Press Freedom Awards

For more than a decade, Indian journalist Shahina K.K. has been fighting the same legal battle.

When Indian authorities first charged the journalist under an anti-terror law in 2010, such cases were rare, Shahina said. But now journalists are more regularly targeted in her home country.

“Fifteen years ago, or 20 years ago, it was an exception — journalists being booked was an exception. Now it has become a norm,” Shahina, an editor at Outlook magazine, told VOA during a trip to Washington this week.

The Indian government has argued the anti-terror law, called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, is necessary to prevent terrorism. Between 2014 and 2020, over 10,500 people were arrested under the law.

Shahina’s experience underscores a global trend in which governments are increasingly using the legal system to target journalists for critical reporting.

“I think it’s a global phenomenon. It’s happening everywhere. And in India, also, as everybody knows, the Indian situation is going from bad to worse,” said Shahina, who is based in the southern Indian city of Kochi.

The global threats to media — and the important work of journalists like Shahina who refuse to be silenced by legal threats or other risks — were recognized Thursday by the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

The press freedom group recognized Shahina and three other journalists — Nika Gvaramia from Georgia, María Teresa Montaño from Mexico, and Ferdinand Ayité from Togo — with its International Press Freedom Award at a black-tie gala in New York.

“Journalists are civilians. We are not targets. We are not combatants. Our pens and our cameras are not weapons of war, but tools of justice. And above all, we are human beings,” CPJ president Jodie Ginsberg said during the event.

The awardees visited Washington earlier this week to meet with U.S. lawmakers, civil society groups and news outlets.

Ginsberg told VOA this year's honorees are linked by the legal harassment they've all faced.

“What unites the four awardees this year are some of the themes we’re seeing globally. So increased criminalization of journalists — in particular, using non-speech related charges against them. Charges like breaches of national security law, for example,” Ginsberg said.

Ginsberg also pointed to the threats of online harassment and surveillance facing these journalists.

Those risks are well known to Ayité, who is the director of the Togolese investigative newspaper L’Alternative. His phone number appeared on the Pegasus Project list of journalists targeted by spyware.

Surveillance is just one of many layers of harassment in Togo, Ayité told VOA, adding that administrative and judicial issues also persist. “That’s the reality of Togo,” Ayité said. “It’s a machine of repression.”

In March, Ayité and L’Alternative’s editor-in-chief Isidore Kouwonou fled Togo shortly before a local court found them guilty on insult and false news charges and sentenced them to three years in prison. Ayité now lives in exile in France, where he continues to lead L’Alternative.

Producing the newspaper from exile is challenging for personal and journalistic reasons, Ayité said. “But with the internet, with technology, we can continue to distribute information in the country.”

With press freedom at risk around the world, Ginsberg said it’s especially important for U.S. lawmakers to hear the stories of these journalists.

“The United States prides itself as the home of the First Amendment, a defender of the free press,” Ginsberg said.

“And so, it’s really important that U.S. lawmakers hear firsthand the kinds of threats that we are seeing worldwide, not just so that they can help protect those journalists internationally, but also so that they understand what might happen here in the United States, if we don’t also defend a free press here,” Ginsberg continued.

With elections scheduled next year in Georgia, India and Mexico, the journalists say it’s all the more important to highlight the role media play.

Gvaramia says next year’s elections will play a consequential role in the future of his country, Georgia, which is caught between the West and Russia.

The founder of the pro-opposition broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on charges he and media advocates widely viewed as politically motivated. A presidential pardon in June freed him after 13 months.

“Either we have democracy on the ground, or we are Russia. There is no third option from my perspective,” Gvaramia told VOA.

The stakes are also high for India, Shahina said, as the country prepares for consequential elections in 2024 that follow a period of democratic backsliding, according to think tank reports.

That era has been punctuated by violations against the media, including the banning of a BBC documentary that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the raid of another critical Indian outlet.

“Everyone who is worried about democracy, secularism and federalism in India, are deeply concerned about the upcoming election,” Shahina said.

India’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In addition to their shared struggles, the awardees are united by their commitment to press freedom.

“Press freedom is very important for the good of society, for democracy,” Ayité said. “Despite the difficulties, abandoning the work is not an option. We must continue.”