Our Voices

#RFKChat: We are very concerned about surveillance and internet shutdowns, says CPJ’s Gypsy Guillén Kaiser

On Tuesday May 31, 2022, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights hosted a Tweet Chat with Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, Director of Advocacy and Communications at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The conversation, our second on the issue of press freedom in the month of May, focused on the challenges journalists currently face, from the rise of fake news to arbitrary arrests and digital surveillance.

Read excerpts here:

Hi Gypsy. We are delighted to have you join us for today’s edition of #RFKChat.

Thank you for this opportunity to join forces in discussing #PressFreedom.

Great! Recently, Ethiopia launched a crackdown on journalists and activists under the guise of a “law enforcement operation” and more than 4,500 people have been arrested. How is CPJ reading what’s currently going on in Ethiopia?

Sadly, the current crackdown follows patterns we’ve observed in Ethiopia, particularly since the start of the ongoing civil war. Numerous journalists have been thrown behind bars in crackdowns that invariably follow heightened political tension or key developments in the war.

Last November CPJ’s Africa team documented another wave of persecution, when the government declared a state of emergency, giving it broad powers to stifle criticism and dissent. Despite ending the “emergency” the chokehold on journalists has not eased. Since May 19, CPJ Africa has documented the arrest of at least 13 journalists, and are investigating at least three others. None of those behind bars have been formally charged, though they face accusations that include instigating violence, among other alleged offenses. Read more here.

Two journalists, arrested during that state of emergency, Dessu Dulla and Bikila Amenu, could face the death penalty on anti-state charges, for what is labeled in the criminal code as “outrages against the constitution.” Ethiopia now has the distinction of being the third worst jailer of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa, after Egypt and Eritrea, according to CPJ’s annual census of imprisoned journalists around the world.

International correspondents have not been spared. Tom Gardner, a correspondent for The Economist, and almost a year prior, New York Times reporter Simon Marks, was expelled.

Now, why is this massive wave of repression happening? Ethiopia is engaged in what I’ll call a silencing war. The country has long been known for its tough control over the media and curtailment of civil society at large. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed came into power at a moment of hope in 2018, during which journalists were released and news sites unblocked. However, the past culture of repression and of hostility to the press was never truly overhauled. Within months of his taking the helm, and despite promised reforms, the government was once more resorting to Internet shutdowns, a blunt censorship tool frequently used before Abiy became prime minister. From Mûthoki Mumo.

The government has moved aggressively to control the narrative about the ongoing war. This has manifested open hostility against the press, and it has been easy to reach into the old tactics of repression. This means, conflating independent journalism with anti-state criminal activity, throwing critics behind bars without even the guise of due process, and resorting to Internet shutdowns. Ethiopia is in good company in the latter. Both the African Union and the United Nations must lead in addressing the crisis in Ethiopia, which goes beyond humanitarian needs and rights violations, including the crackdown on journalists. The needs cannot be addressed without the rights. What this all boils down to is something common under repressive leaders: the media is turned into a scapegoat and the voices of those they report on -people lacking security or being victimized in various ways- are silenced.

Beyond Ethiopia, around the world, the civic space is under attack—from repressive laws to arbitrary arrests and digital surveillance targeting journalists, activists and other civic actors. What does this mean for non-journalists, ordinary citizens and the wider society?

I believe that activists/NGOs and journalists are typically among the first to be targeted by those intolerant of critique. For the average person, what this means is that their ability to have factual information about things that affect their daily lives, is at peril. The job of NGOs that advocate for change, like us CPJ, is to focus on an issue that requires reform, or to represent a group of people who are on the margins of power and need policies that will improve their situation. Journalists often report on how power is exercised daily, by decision makers in both the public and private sectors and how those decisions affect people. Journalists will dig deep in their reporting, confirm information and get to the heart of the matter, but most stop at advocacy. However, the focus on public accountability is a space where they converge and there are collaborations that further both the kind of watchdog reporting made possible by CPJ. and advocacy by NGOs. One example is the collaboration between Transparency International and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

There is a baby formula shortage in the U.S. right now and news organizations are showing why this is happening, who is most affected and ultimately how inadequate social policies such as insufficient parental leave are exacerbating inequality in this crisis. Another example of the value of journalism, even when struggling and facing threats, is the work of Khabar Lahariya (“News Wave”), an all-women newsroom in India, is an extraordinary effort to shed light on the issues that women face. Since the Russia-Ukraine war began, these journalists have been documenting how the war in Ukraine is increasing food insecurity across the world. This affects everyone. During the Covid-19 pandemic, local journalists played a critical role in counting the dead where governments failed or refused to do so, providing often lifesaving guidance. In some instances, they paid a price. As of June 2021, CPJ has documented 221 attacks or restrictions on journalists related to their pandemic coverage.

For a deep dive into how the Covid-19 pandemic has led many countries to engage in various forms of censorship, I highly recommend The Infodemic, by my colleagues Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney. As CPJ board member, Jon Williams likes to say: “Press freedom is your freedom.”

The theme of this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day is “Journalism under digital siege.” How pervasive is the threat of digital surveillance in the global civic space today?

We are very concerned about:

– Surveillance, in particular spyware deployed against journalists

– Internet shutdowns which disrupt the flow of information, the dissemination of news and thus the public’s ability to remain informed. It can also affect news gathering.

We’ve been documenting the use of spyware for some time and advocating for a moratorium in the sale of this technology until it can be properly regulated and not weaponized to spy on journalists and their sources. See our reporting here. We had one bit of progress when the U.S. imposed export controls on the sale of Pegasus. Here you can explore why this matters. But there is still a lot of work to do!

In India, spyware is one of several tools used to stifle critical journalism. To help journalists protect themselves, CPJ publishes and regularly updates a digital safety kit in several languages. To fight Internet shutdowns, these must be documented and we work in coalition with Access Now to #KeepItOn.

Sometimes, there is success. “In 2019, CPJ joined a group of civil society organizations in submitting an amicus brief to the court, asserting that the shutdown infringed on journalists’ ability to cover news in the country.”

I must also mention that CPJ will be publishing an extensive report on spyware later this year and we will be at RightsCon this June discussing the secondary impact on the families of journalists spied on.

The proliferation of fake news, disinformation and propaganda has led to calls for social media regulation in the U.S. and in other countries around the world. Do these calls constitute a threat to journalism and free expression?

I spent quite a bit of time at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic debunking truly baffling amounts of “facts” that my mom was receiving via WhatsApp. She didn’t believe it but it was a distraction and it was spreading rapidly. This is a problem of our times. It’s happening partly because people are processing information in tidbits. But also, because trust in the media has taken a blow across the world. Countless efforts to discredit journalists open the space for politically expedient propaganda and misinformation. By discrediting, dehumanizing and publicly vilifying journalists, those engaged in these actions don’t just control narratives, but also feed animosity and intolerance towards the press, opening the door to physical attacks and harassment. Disinformation and propaganda are directly linked to online attacks, which are particularly acute for women journalists. Trolling and scapegoating journalists includes conspiracy theories about their reporting and misrepresentation of facts. Governments have also used the disinformation madness to come up with legislation. Journalists are critical in battling disinformation, as recognized by the UN.

Technology platforms must be transparent, proactive and responsive in ensuring that allegations of online abuse are properly investigated and addressed. They should also be prevented. We believe in ongoing dialogue to improve policies and practices. When journalists come under attack online and face imminent danger or when companies take down content as a result of unwarranted allegations or an outright censorship campaign, we intervene. Europe is leading the way in regulations and we are closely monitoring and participating in this process to ensure that press freedom is not hindered in any way.

CPJ has been documenting the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on the media. What significant developments have you observed?

Yes, we have a special team at CPJ Eurasia monitoring all press freedom violations and attacks on journalists with a dedicated team. The crisis is multilayered and will have long-lasting impacts.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, at least 8 journalists have been killed while reporting. CPJ is looking into the circumstances around 6 additional journalists killed in Ukraine. This brings us to a total of 14 killed, and others have been injured. But there are other impacts that concern us: the massive displacement and exile of journalists: Ukrainian journalists have mostly remained in the country to report on their own communities but many have been internally displaced. But Russian journalists have had to flee. Belarusian and Tajik journalists who had taken refuge in Ukraine were forced to flee again.

The possibility that ongoing sanctions will further isolate Russia and cut off people from factual reporting, which has essentially been criminalized inside Russia is gravely concerning. Our reporting on the Russia-Ukraine war can be found below. Just yesterday another journalist was killed. CPJ has also contributed to efforts on #PPE and helping journalists in Ukraine to survive.

Last June, CPJ honored four journalists at #IPFA2021. Two journalists recently won the Nobel Prize. Last week, we hosted our Book & Journalism Awards and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award will be held June 7. What do these awards mean for a global civic space under siege?

I should say that we were elated when the Nobel Prize went to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who are both CPJ awardees. Awards are not only about recognition but about raising awareness and protecting people who defy censorship, threats and incredibly difficult circumstances. They persist and we must help them to persist because together we are stronger.

Thank you, Gypsy, for joining us today on #RFKChat. We had a great conversation! Thanks to everyone who followed the conversation. We hope you join us next Tuesday for the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

Thank YOU! I hope this helps to shed light on some press freedom issues, on our work and on why it matters.