Regimes target free press with ‘economic strangulation,’ report says

Violence against journalists is blatant repression. However, authoritarian regimes are finding that less obvious, nonviolent tactics like freezing assets, revoking licenses or blocking access to ink can shutter newspapers without provoking international outcry, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.

“Someone not paying close attention may assume that the newspaper was the victim of mismanagement or declining public interest,” the group says in a recent report. “But newspapers are often deliberately put to death with terrible consequences for the right to information.”

Regimes in Russia, Burma, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and elsewhere have forced the closure of at least 22 newspapers since 2017. Reporters Without Borders says the methods often include “judicial harassment or economic strangulation.”

People standing in long line to newspaper stand (© Vincent Yu/AP Images)
People wait to buy the final issue of “Apple Daily” at a Hong Kong newspaper stand on June 24. (© Vincent Yu/AP Images)

The United States and other democracies are pushing back. President Biden, in a June 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, defended journalists, who risk arrest for reporting in Russia. The independent Russian website, VTimes, closed June 12 after Russia’s Ministry of Justice branded the outlet a “foreign agent,” prompting advertisers and news sources to fear prosecution.

The Media Freedom Coalition, in a July statement, opposed the PRC’s forced closure of the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily June 23. The pressure, which involved arresting staff, “undermines Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong.”

Twenty-one members of the Media Freedom Coalition joined the statement, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Japan, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.

The PRC froze Apple Daily‘s assets, preventing it from paying staff and other expenses, and arrested five editors — including the chief editor. Reporters Without Borders says the forced closure follows authoritarian regimes’ pattern of using economic or other pressure to shutter critical news outlets.

Array of newspapers with Burmese writing (© AP Images)
Burma’s military has forced the closure of news outlets in Burma, including 7 Day News, seen here at a stand in Rangoon. (© AP Images)

In March, Burma’s military revoked the broadcast and publication licenses of five independent media outlets, including 7 Day News and Eleven Media, forcing the two newspapers to close and leaving no independent newspapers in Burma.

The Cambodia Daily, faced with an unprecedented, $6.3 million tax demand, closed in September 2017. Over the past several years, the Nicaraguan government has launched a series of administrative attacks against print and broadcast media, depriving some daily newspapers, such as the now-shuttered El Nuevo Diario, of imports of paper and ink, and imposing tax penalties on broadcast outlets, such as Channel 12.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a meeting with reporters to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, said the United States is committed to defending human rights, including press freedom. He thanked journalists for the risks they take to hold governments accountable and inform the public.

“People everywhere should be free to express their beliefs, hold opinions without interference, to seek, receive, and share information and ideas,” Blinken said April 28. “We see a free press as vital for human progress. When you harm journalists, you threaten that progress.”