Journalist Joel Simon intv: ‘Govts have found ways to turn the law against journalists’

TNM caught up with Joel Simon, author, journalist, and press freedom advocate, during his recent visit to India.
Journalist Joel Simon intv: ‘Govts have found ways to turn the law against journalists’
Journalist Joel Simon intv: ‘Govts have found ways to turn the law against journalists’

Journalist Joel Simon has extensively covered the state targeting of media professionals across the globe. An author and press freedom advocate, he has written on the responses of the US, UK and European nations to ransom demands for abducted reporters by terror groups and documented the manners in which dissent and critical journalism are suppressed in various countries. 

TNM caught up with Simon during his recent visit to India. Simon talks about the disinformation threats, the limits of fact-checking, the ways in which press freedom suffered during the Obama and Trump administrations, the abuse across the world of anti-terror laws and sedition charges and the increasing role of the media against autocratic governments. 

Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. His book, We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom draws from his close to twenty years of experience working with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The book serves as a critical insight into policy debates regarding reporters taken hostage by terror groups and the human and ethical cost of state responses to such hostage situations. 

His most recent book is The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free, which he co-wrote with Robert Mahoney. Simon also writes on press freedom for The New Yorker and is a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. 

The threat of disinformation as an instrument used by the state is a problem across the world. How should journalists combat this?

The reason for disinformation is political or commercial or strategic or state interest to achieve specific objectives. The antidote to that, for journalists operating in the same space, is to always be mindful of their public interest role and obligation. This means that the information you produce should treat your readers or viewers as citizens and seek to provide them with the facts that they need to make informed decisions. That’s the kind of public interest role of journalism, and leaning into that is the way to confront people in the information space who don’t care about public interest in the same way. 

There have been several strategies over time, some more effective than others, but all of them are valid and worth considering, such as doubling down on fact-checking, developing specialised disinformation beats and debunking and pre-bunking disinformation. Aside from all this, producing high-quality journalism that serves citizens is the most important thing journalists can do to combat disinformation. 

Do you think that the development of organisations dedicated to fact-checking, aside from regular newsrooms, could also be effective?

The challenge that fact-checking operators face is speed and reach. Are they able to operate quickly enough to combat false narratives? Are they able to reach the same people who are impacted by these narratives? I would say the answer is inconclusive. 

The one thing that research does suggest is that people consume information as part of a community. They believe narratives that are validated by the communities that they are a part of. Once that happens, even if you are exposed to information that demonstrates that the narrative you believe is false, you are not likely to change your mind. Why? Because the community you are a part of shares this narrative and you would be ostracised or pushed out if you adopted a different narrative. 

Let’s, for example, take a community built around a specific political ideology or a party. It’s really challenging to fight disinformation with fact-checking alone. Certainly, fact-checking has an impact on people who are vulnerable to disinformation but are still open to re-considering and re-evaluating the information they are receiving. But there are certain sectors that are much more difficult to reach out to with this strategy. 

You recently wrote in The New Yorker about state persecution and the imprisonment of journalist José Rubén Zamora in Guatemala. You also mentioned how one strategy the state used was to go after his funding. Is this a strategy you see in other parts of the world of targeting the few people willing to fund independent journalism?   

Recently some of my colleagues and I put together a report titled Weaponizing the Law: Attack on Media Freedom. One of the key legal threats we identified was that governments around the world are exploiting laws to suppress critical journalism. The challenge we also identified regarding this was that media defence organisations have developed a specialisation in defending journalists accused of speech-related crimes. But you need a criminal defence attorney to defend you against allegations of financial crimes, which is a specialised area of law. There aren’t many such resources available. So it is a very effective strategy on the part of governments. Even just by alleging that journalists are engaged in financial crimes, you’re damaging their reputations in the mind of the public. What happened to the Salvadorian news outlet El Faro is one such example. 

In India, we have seen many recent examples where different kinds of laws are being used to target journalists – hate speech, sedition, terror laws etc. Is the scenario the same in other countries?

Our report also does look at how the law – a protective framework – is turned against journalists. The rights of journalists are grounded in international human rights laws, but governments have found ways of turning the law against journalists. Usually, whatever framework this happens under, whether anti-terror laws or sedition or fake news, the primary characteristic is both the vagueness of the law and arbitrary application of the law. My concern – with only a superficial knowledge of the situation in India – would be how these laws concerning seditious or subversive activities are defined. What kind of discretion does the state apply to enforce them? And what kind of independent redressal mechanism exists that would allow journalists who are being prosecuted under such laws to defend themselves? 

What are the consequences of such laws? 

The abuse of these laws can have impacts from weakening democratic safeguards to completely entrenching authoritarian governments. Authoritarian systems are based on abusive manipulation of the law. If you transition from a more democratic society to an authoritarian one, it is usually through the broader application of the law, the consolidation of state authority and the weakening of institutions which limit government power, allowing governments to usurp legal authority.  

What was your experience of working during the Trump Era? Was there a significant shift in how newsrooms functioned? 

As a press freedom defender, it was extremely complicated and confusing as it was for the media. In 2013, the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) released a report called The Obama Administration and the Press. He certainly did not attack the media, he spoke about press freedom and engaged with them. But he also used influencers and social media strategists and other means to build a relationship with his supporters that cut off the media. As an administrator, he was very determined to prevent leaks. He was very controlling about who can speak to the press. He used legal measures, including the Espionage Act to prosecute several journalists. His press freedom record was quite mixed. A lot of journalists found it very frustrating to cover the Obama administration. You couldn’t get any information and he would not engage with the media. 

In the case of Trump, it was incredibly complicated. He attacked White House correspondents all the time. He was obsessed with the media. If he was angry about anything critical, he would attack you. And then your profile would rise. A lot of news organisations were seeing an increase in subscribers. He was energising people. But, under the Trump administration, the White House leaked like a sieve. If you were a journalist during the Obama administration, you could never get anyone to talk to you. During the Trump administration, it was a free-for-all. There was no control over the messaging and there was a lot of in-fighting. What Trump did, rather than control access to the media, was to outcompete it. He was brilliant at doing that. He could dominate a media cycle. He would act outrageously and compel people to cover his outrageous activities even though they knew that doing so was giving him a political advantage by allowing him to drown out all other news. 

Everyone in the media recognised that the rhetoric he was using was damaging to democracy and the media as an institution. But covering him was a lot easier than it was to cover Obama. At the time, when I was still at CPJ, we were conflicted about how to respond. As much as we found his rhetoric distasteful, as a free expression organisation, we couldn’t say that Trump can’t call the media “fake news.” If we condemned him then in a US context, we would be taking a position against his free expression, so we were in a trap as well. What we did instead was to argue that his rhetoric was undermining American democracy and empowering autocratic governments around the world. We made the argument not in the context of the US media but in the context of US global leadership. We had data at CPJ that governments across the world were weaponising this ‘fake news’ concept, criminalising it and jailing journalists. 

What is the media landscape like in the US now during the Biden administration? 

Trump was extremely bad for democracy and for the status that the media enjoyed. He was very good for digital media organisations though, including The New York Times, which saw an increase in subscriptions. News networks like MSNBC or CNN made a huge amount of money. Some networks had a partisan approach, but others were really digging into the news cycle and people wanted that. 

Biden likes dealing with the press more than Obama did. He’s rather old-school, so he doesn't use social media like Obama did. He doesn’t do many press conferences, he does a few and he certainly has changed the rhetoric completely. He’s made some good moves such as limiting the ways in which journalists can be subpoenaed by the Justice Department. There is no comparison between how Trump dealt with the press and how Biden does. Biden engages with the media, and he supports press freedom as a matter of principle, which he talks about with regard to foreign policy. There is a massive improvement in the rhetoric, but there have been definite shortcomings in execution. 

Two things are incredibly disappointing about the Biden administration in terms of press freedom and foreign policy. One was during the US pull-out from Afghanistan. Journalists were not prioritised, and many were left behind, which was a betrayal. The second was failing to pursue justice for Jamal Khashoggi. He decided there was a strategic benefit to re-engaging with Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi Arabian regime. The rationale provided was the benefit with regard to the Ukraine war, such as ensuring that the US has access to energy. That was the end of isolating Mohammed bin Salman.

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