First Person• LAW

Press Freedom in the Age of Demagogues, Populists, and Fake News

As chief executive officer of the London-based Media Legal Defence Initative, LUCY FREEMAN guides an organization dedicated to protecting the rights, livelihoods, and safety of journalists worldwide.
Lucy Freeman

AMERICA’S PRESIDENT, DONALD TRUMP, has declared war on the media, but he’s not the only one. He’s following a trend, not leading it. Globally, the space for a free press is contracting, crushed by a resurgent right wing in Europe and the chauvinistic nationalism of a growing number of heads of state, and fueled by the rush to legislate a new digital landscape. In every corner of the world, the established, if not always adhered to, norms of a free press are being eroded. 

Trump popularized the term “fake news,” now deployed by oppressive regimes from Azerbaijan to Uganda to demonize and undermine the credibility of the press. But “false news” laws have been around for centuries— tools of the powerful to silence dissent and, in recent decades, especially used against journalists. Recognized as incompatible with the principles of democracy and free speech, theses old laws were steadily being expunged from statute books. In the last ten years, the Supreme Courts of Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the Gambia struck down false news laws as unconstitutional because they violate the right to freedom of expression. However, spurred by revelations of election misinformation campaigns and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and backlit by Trump’s rhetoric, false news laws have seen a resurgence. 

In recent months, a wave of hastily crafted false news laws have been enacted around the world. In Kenya, a new cybercrimes act was introduced that criminalizes the publication of “false, misleading, or fictitious data,” with a penalty of a $50,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. In Brazil, a multitude of bills (between 14–20) are before the legislature, criminalizing the creation, publication, and dissemination of internet rumors and false news, with penalties ranging from R$1,500 ($360) fines to up to eight years in prison. In July, Egypt passed a new media law criminalizing the spreading of “false news” for anyone with more than 5,000 social media followers. 

Meanwhile, in Poland, the 2018 Holocaust law made it a crime for anyone anywhere in the world to suggest Polish responsibility for, or complicity in, crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. Following widespread domestic and international condemnation, the law was later amended to a civil offense rather than a criminal one, but not before a complaint was filed against an Argentinian newspaper for a story about the massacre of Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne in 1941. And in Germany, the Network Enforcement Act, which came into force in January, compels social media companies to remove “illegal content” or face a penalty fine of up to €50 million. The law, which was heavily criticized for being vague and overly broad, has been cited by Russia, Singapore, and the Philippines as they prepare to legislate against “misinformation” and “falsehoods” online. 

“Globally, the space for a free press is contracting.” 

Allegations of disseminating false information are also regularly used to justify internet shutdowns. In 2017, internet access was cut off at least 62 times by governments around the world, with “public safety” and “stopping rumors and dissemination of illegal content” cited as the most common justifications. In India, the internet was shut down in parts of the country at least 40 times in 2017, the highest number of any country. In Pakistan, YouTube has been repeatedly blocked in the country since September 2012, just one of the many sites that have been blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority without any basis in law, decree, or even a guideline. 

Cameroon shut down internet access in the country’s English-speaking regions in January 2017 for 93 days, and then again from October 2017 to the time of this writing. Internet shutdowns are invariably disproportionate and severely restrict the enjoyment of a range of other rights and services, including email and mobile communications, mobile banking, online trade, and the ability to access government services via the internet. 

The battle over truth is also being played out in Europe’s courts. The “right to be forgotten” is gaining momentum in Europe, with the French courts ordering that Google “delist” search results worldwide that linked to a story about a French national. This French decision, if upheld, opens the way for global delisting orders that would make certain search results disappear regardless of where the user making the search was located, and regardless of what national domain they were using. If such wide-ranging and extraterritorial delisting demands become the norm, we can expect such orders from countries around the world, significantly undermining our right to receive and impart information. 

In many ways, we are witnessing a race to the bottom when it comes to free speech rights online. Trump is just one of the competitors in this race. From Nigeria to Thailand, people have been arrested and detained for blogs, Facebook posts, and even retweets critical of (or just mocking) those in power. 

Last month in Bangladesh, the internationally renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested and detained under Section 57 of the country’s infamous Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act on charges of “spreading propaganda and false information against the government” (he had earlier photographed student protests and then given an interview to an international news agency). At the time of this writing, he remains in detention. 

The vast majority of journalists in prison today are there on some form of national security or anti-state charge. In Trump’s America, journalists and the media are labeled the “enemy of the American people,” but in Erdogan’s Turkey and Sisi’s Egypt, they are imprisoned on charges of terrorism. There are approximately 250 journalists currently in jail in Turkey, many of whom are charged with terrorism-related offenses. 

These leaders’ actions are textbook examples of the lengths governments will go to stymie journalists in their work. However, recent moves in France and Germany also represent a very real threat to freedom of expression in general, as well as independent, investigative journalism in particular. 

As legislators and courts around the world grapple with the changing roles of journalists and publishers, and as authoritarian leaders continue to attack the media, we need practical action to defend press freedom. 

At Media Legal Defence Initiative, we are taking that action. We are providing legal defense to hundreds of journalists around the world to keep them of out jail, and through our global program of impact litigation, we are combating the laws used to send them there. And we are building up a network of partners in every corner of the globe to do the same. Together we are ensuring journalists can carry out their work uncensored and unhindered. 

Find out more about MLDI’s work at