Bangladeshi journalists protest in front of press club as they demand press freedom in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 5, 2022

Bangladeshi journalists protest in front of press club as they demand press freedom in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 5, 2022

For 15 years until 2021, I served as the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and in that capacity traveled the world to defend press freedom. I visited countless newsrooms and interviewed hundreds of journalists under threat. I regularly met with government representatives to make the case that respect for press freedom was not only a matter of law and principle but of national interest. I helped produce detailed reports describing the deteriorating climate and making specific recommendations. I prodded democratic governments to speak out and apply pressure when press freedom was violated. I rallied the global media to cover attacks on their colleagues. I worked closely with peer organizations in the press freedom community.

All these efforts made a difference. But they were not enough to reverse the alarming decline in press freedom worldwide.

As the losses mounted and jails filled, questions emerged. Was our strategy correct? Were we making the best argument to engage the public, governments, policymakers, and the media community itself? Were we effectively able to communicate why journalism mattered, at a time when it was being transformed by technology? Was there an inherent weakness in the human rights model for advocacy, developed and refined over decades, and based on a name-and-shame approach?

I first joined CPJ in May 1997 as the Americas program coordinator, having spent a decade as a reporter in Latin America. Precisely because CPJ was committed to defending the fundamental rights of all journalists, staff were instructed at that time not to make judgements or “to engage in media criticism.” Under international law, all journalists were entitled to precisely the same protection. The premise, linked to the broader human rights movement, was that defending the fundamental right of journalists would strengthen accountability, seed democracy, and help shape the emerging rules-based international order. Through its press freedom advocacy, CPJ could help transform societies. However, this endeavor would only have credibility if we stuck to our principles, defending all journalists regardless of their ideology, and eschewing judgments about the quality or ethics of their reporting.

There was certainly a bit of magical thinking in this formulation but at the time it seemed to be working. In my first few years at CPJ, independent journalism blossomed around the world.[1] Of course the collapse of the Soviet Union had a lot to do with this, but so did the political opening in Asia, and the end of proxy wars in Latin America.

In 2006, I became Executive Director of CPJ. While affirming the right-based approach to press freedom defense, I relaxed the strictures against media criticism and allowed the regional experts to apply greater discretion in determining their priorities. While CPJ continued to operate within a human rights framework, the regional experts often made decisions about which cases to take up based on the perceived value of the media outlet under attack, taking into account its independence from authority, and the quality of its journalism. Priorities were also determined by relationships that CPJ staff developed with journalists and editors themselves who were working under threat and would appeal directly for assistance.

This internal tension between a mandate grounded in rights with equal protection for all and a reality of selective advocacy for journalists who reflected shared values was manageable as long as press freedom conditions were improving. But the considerations shifted when press freedom began to deteriorate. The turning point, though we did not fully grasp it at the time, came years earlier following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the onset of the War on Terror. In December 2000 CPJ recorded its lowest number ever of journalists imprisoned around the world — 81. In December 2001, three months after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the number had risen to 118. From that point onward, the numbers of journalists imprisoned climbed steadily and inexorably upward.

Over the course of the next two decades, there were waves of repression linked to major shifts in the global information landscape. The 2011 Arab Spring, coming on the heels of the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe, was another major turning point. Mass protests fueled by anger at corruption and human rights abuses toppled entrenched regimes, causing governments to recognize the threat posed by independent information and to clamp down on online speech. The most profound shifts were in Russia and China, whose governments sought not only to assert greater authority in the domestic information space but to strengthen their international propaganda networks to weaken their adversaries and shape global perceptions.

Another wave of repression was linked to the rise of elected autocrats. Many of these new leaders explicitly attacked the traditional media as part of their campaign strategies, relying on social media to rally their supporters and deliver their political message. They also urged their supporters to swarm their critics online, unleashing waves of harassment and vilification that significantly raised the cost of critical journalism. In some cases, their messages were amplified by armies of paid supporters and bots, which further corrupted and polarized the domestic information space.[2]

In the United States, where Donald Trump employed a similar strategy to gain office, independent journalists and critical media outlets became a permanent punching bag for his administration. President Trump’s anti-media rhetoric was embraced by autocratic leaders around the world who not only referred to critical journalism as “fake news” but passed new laws criminalizing its publication.[3] The number of journalists jailed around the world on “false news” charges (the category tracked by CPJ) nearly doubled from 20 to 37 over the course of the Trump administration, as the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide set new records annually, reaching 274 at the end of 2020, the last year of the Trump presidency.[4]

During this period, we also saw increased levels of violence, much of it perpetrated by criminal and militant groups who were largely impervious to traditional human-rights advocacy.  The two decade-long War on Terror — from the September 2001 attacks to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 — was also characterized by military conflict in which journalists paid an extraordinary price. All told, more than 1,000 journalists were killed during this period, including 189 in Iraq, 139 in Syria, and 53 in Afghanistan. The breakdown gives some sense of the nature of the risk. Two hundred fifty-seven journalists were killed in crossfire incidents, in some cases by the U.S. military, which deployed force recklessly in ways that undermined the safety of civilians. But well over 100 were murdered by both criminals and militant groups, who frequently targeted journalists for reprisal.[5] Kidnapping also became an occupational hazard.

The rights-based approach to press freedom advocacy was never going to be effective against non-state actors because criminals and terrorist groups do not feel bound by human rights agreements. Instead, advocacy groups sought to document and publicize the kidnapping and murders of journalists in the hope that negative media coverage would deter criminals from carrying out future crimes. The strategy was of limited efficacy, because criminal and militant groups, ranging from drug cartels in Mexico to Islamic militants in South Asia and the Middle East, were largely indifferent to the negative attention in the traditional media. In fact, in many instances, they cultivated it, publicizing brutal acts of fear as a way of sowing fear and energizing their followers.

Recognizing this reality, and following the videotaped murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic State militants in 2014, I started a new program at CPJ focused on journalists’ security. The logic was that the only way to stop the horrific murders was to make sure that journalists had the tools, resources, and training to stay safe. Our approach was to combine security information and resources with direct assistance for journalists under threat under the rubric of a new Emergencies Department. This new structure literally saved lives – evacuating journalists under threat – and helped create greater awareness about the importance of safety protocols, especially for international journalists working in high-risk environments.

At the same time, the emergency response work began to consume more time and resources. Because of its visibility and impact, it also attracted more funding, shifting the culture of the organization.[6]

The rise in violence and repression against journalists around the world had led to a dramatic decline in levels of press freedom as measured by leading indices prepared by Freedom House, V-Dem and Reporters Without Borders. But there are other factors as well. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated deeply negative trends grounded in what has been dubbed by political scientist Larry Diamond as the “democratic recession.” During the first phase of the pandemic, elected autocrats such as Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India used lies and misinformation to undermine the public health consensus. Their strategy of “censorship through noise” or “flooding” was based less on suppressing information and more on sowing confusion and paralysis and monopolizing attention. Around the world, at least 80 countries imposed new restrictions on speech and assembly that they falsely claimed were necessary to protect public health.[7] 

While democratic populists have exploited new technologies to impose their own narratives domestically, authoritarian governments have relied on cruder measures to restrict critical expression while also seeking to shape the global information space in ways that advance their interests. The Chinese government has poured significant sums into media development, particularly in Africa where it has underwritten state broadcasters and journalism training. It has also made investments in its global propaganda network, which functions on both social media and traditional media, primarily through the English language service of the CCTV.

Russia’s efforts to shape global perceptions are more nefarious and more disruptive. Russia views the use of propaganda and disinformation as a tool of war and has used a variety of information strategies to weaken and undermine its adversaries. Putin’s view is that the West has employed information operations to spark unrest and install Western-allied governments, most notably in Ukraine. Similar efforts by Russia are simply a way of leveling the playing field.

A rights-based approach must remain at the heart of press freedom and freedom of expression advocacy, most notably legal advocacy grounded in international law. But if the goal is to produce positive social outcomes press freedom must more actively seek to shape the global information space to promote accountability and democratic debate. This means acknowledging a focus on protecting the rights of the media outlets that report on corruption, advance accountability, and provide the public with timely and accurate information with a variety of perspectives on the widest range of issues. It means infusing press freedom advocacy with a recognition that in the current environment news and information that advance accountability will not necessarily prevail in the “marketplace of ideas.”

In more than two decades of press freedom defense, I have seen governments, terrorists and criminal groups use the global information system to promulgate their own narratives, build support for war, undermine the global health consensus, damage democracy and drive polarization and fear. To counter these insidious forces, the press freedom community should prioritize the defense of journalism that serves the public interest. By doing so, those defending the rights of journalists can best fulfill their original mission: Ensuring that people around the world have access to news and information that allows them to most effectively exercise power.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This essay is excerpted from A New Paradigm for Global Journalism: Press Freedom and Public Interest, published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. During 2022, Simon was a fellow at the Tow Center and a visiting senior fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute, also at Columbia. The author is grateful to the Ford Foundation, which provided funding.

[1] Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1998-9 (New York: Freedom House, 1999);  Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1999-2000 (New York: Freedom House, 2000); Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 2000-2001 (New York: Freedom House, 2001); Sarah Repucci, Media Freedom: A Downward Spiral.

[2] See for example: Julie Posetti, Nabeelah Shabbir, Diana Maynard, Kalina Bontcheva, Nermine Aboulez, The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists; research discussion paper (Paris: UNESCO, 2021).  

This report documents the scope of systematic online attacks on free expression and lack of an adequate response from the tech companies.

[3] “Censorious governments are abusing “fake news” laws,” The Economist, February 13, 2021,

[4] CPJ, Email with author, December 20, 2022; Arlene Getz, “Number of jailed journalists spikes to new global record,” CPJ, December 14, 2022,

The upward trajectory continued after Trump left office, reaching 293 by the end of 2021 and a staggering 363 at the end of 2022. The 2022 surge in imprisonment was due in part to the crackdown in Iran.

[5]Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Email with author, December 20, 2022.  

[6] Sherry Ricchiardi, “At-risk journalists can turn to ‘Emergencies Response Team’ for help,” International Journalists’ Network, October 30, 2018,  

[7]Joel Simon and Robert Mahoney, The Infodemic, 68-72; 147-148.

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