Authoritarian regimes target journalists worldwide

Police escorting man through crowd on city street (© Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Images)
Police detain a reporter in Moscow in August 2019. Russia’s government is increasingly harassing journalists, rights groups say. (© Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Images)

Authoritarian regimes are known for targeting journalists and other critics within their borders. Now, say watchdog groups, they are increasingly threatening press freedom beyond their borders.

Freedom House, in a February 4 report, identifies regimes in Russia, the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran as leading culprits.

“Exiles around the world describe surveillance, assault, or even kidnapping and assassination as a constant threat that limits their ability to speak freely,” Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz said.

The report, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach” [PDF, 18 MB], documents 608 cases of transnational repression, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions and unlawful deportations.

Freedom of the press is a core principle of democracy that helps maintain a balance of power in government. In the United States, this essential right is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, journalists worldwide face significant risks for their reporting. In Burma, the military regime has imprisoned dozens of journalists since seizing power February 1.

The coup set press freedoms in Burma back “ten years in ten days,” the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says, adding that journalists face threats, intimidation and censorship. Burma’s military regime has banned certain words, including “coup” and “regime.”

In RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, issued April 20, Burma joins the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Iran and Russia in the ranks of the worst violators. Out of 180 countries, Burma ranks 140, while Russia, Iran and the PRC each rank near the bottom: 150, 174 and 177, respectively.

Beijing “continues to take Internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to unprecedented levels,” RSF says.

Freedom House adds, “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.”

Gulchehra Hoja is one of a half-dozen Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists whose relatives the PRC has targeted in response to their reporting. Since Hoja, a Uyghur American, began covering the PRC’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, PRC authorities have arrested 24 of her relatives in China.

Hoja says she and her colleagues will continue their work. “We are free. We have [a] responsibility to take action.”

Iran’s regime also targets journalists outside the country, threatening reporters abroad, conducting cyberattacks on reporters’ computers and arresting journalists’ relatives in Iran, according to Freedom House.

Moscow’s harassment and obstruction of reporters is increasing to “unprecedented and sometimes violent” levels, RSF says. Russia’s leaders arrest student journalists at home and monitor and threaten reporters outside the country.

The regime also has failed to act against pro-Kremlin leader of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, whose campaign against journalists and others includes torture and extrajudicial killings, according to Freedom House.

“This modern age and technology allow us to know everything,” Kadyrov said in 2018, according to the report. “We can find any of you.”

Benjamin Franklin, an American founding father, called freedom of speech “a principal pillar of free government.” He understood that without free speech, “the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”