Anthony Mills and Katharine Sarikakis

15Politics and Policies of Journalism and Free Press

Abstract: Throughout history journalism has been perceived by society and the profession as a counterbalance to power abuse, the actor entrusted by the public with the willingness and ability to hold power and especially the State to account. A free public sphere requires free journalism if the principles of enlightenment are to flourish. A free press is incontrovertibly linked to the degree of freedom in a society and while one does not necessarily guarantee the other, the undermining of freedoms in social life is connected with the lack of freedom of expression. The concepts of free speech and the right to impart and access information constitute pillars of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 2016) & the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe 2016) and of constitutions across the globe. The underlying understanding is that without the freedom to debate issues of public interest using the best and most accurate information available, democracy as a goal and lived political system is impeded. This chapter discusses the politics and policies that impact on journalism, with the starting point that normatively, journalists should seek to hold power accountable.

Keywords: journalism, journalists’ safety, media policy, media politics, surveillance


Journalism has historically been seen by society and by the profession as the antipode of power abuse, the actor entrusted by the public with being able to hold power and especially the State to account. A free public sphere requires free press, for the principles of enlightenment to flourish. A free press is inextricably associated with the degree of freedom in a society and while one does not necessarily guarantee the other, the undermining of freedoms in social life is connected with a lack of freedom of expression. The concepts of free speech and the freedom to impart and access information are cornerstones of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 2016), the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe 2016) and constitutions around the world. The underlying understanding is that without the freedom to discuss issues of public interest, with the best and most accurate information available, democracy as a goal and lived political system is impeded.

Set against the complex shifting sands of globalization and of a media landscape faced with rapid and profound structural and economic change and challenges, a question arises: what is the place of the media of today in the context of communications and media policy interaction between nation states and the broad array of associated actors that make up the borderless globalized communications policy melting pot, from transnational entities like IGOs, such as the World Trade Organization and IMF, to Silicon Valley technology giants, to independent journalists working for new media platforms that no longer play by the old nation state interest rules. Shifting media landscapes, amid a rush to structurally, economically and ethically redefine the profession of journalism as traditional news platform models struggle financially, and perceptions of “borders” evolve, have dramatically altered the frames of reference for communications policy discourse. Multi-layered globalization, involving cross-border market, finance, and information integration, means that decision-making no longer occurs at a nation-state level alone but has diffused into a hybrid comprising a variety of supranational, transnational, regional, local, and translocal actors and entities. Networks and corporations, including the world’s leading media and news platforms, with communications policy-making influence, no longer think or operate predominantly within national borders, nor are their structural frameworks unchanged. Proponents of positive change for media in a democratized age of globalization note that “information is free” and borderless, but the flipside of the equation is that traditional news media platforms are still struggling to establish viable economic models in an age in which there is an expectation by consumers not only that information moves freely across the Internet and the world but that news can be consumed for free. Against this backdrop, policy, politics, and economics merge, maneuvering in a globally ambiguous way, at once inter- and trans-national, but also regional, translocal, or even hyperlocal.

This chapter discusses the politics and policies that impact on journalism, with the starting point that normatively, journalism should aim to hold power accountable, whether this is power deriving from the State or exercised by private entities, and in the public interest. It can do so by providing accurate information and analysis, investigating deeply the workings of power in general and bringing to light information and multiple opinions, and by reflecting as broad a spectrum of social groups as possible. Journalism, especially in the digital age, is not always easy to define, especially in any form of universally-accepted context. The Wikileaks and Snowden coverage in particular sparked debates about who is and isn’t a journalist (Franklin 2012). The four principal definers of journalism are international governmental organizations such as the United Nations, states, the journalism industry itself, and civil society NGOs such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders whose self-proclaimed mission it is to defend the rights of journalists as per their definition of journalism. Eldridge (2014) notes that traditional media are quick to defend their definition of journalism and enforce boundaries in the face of what they define as “interlopers” – whom they specifically and explicitly exclude. This dynamic was in evidence during coverage of the Wikileaks and Snowden topics. Some NGOs’ definition of journalism, for example, probably includes many of those – citizen journalists, for example – whom traditional media see as interlopers.

The following discussion is not so much a survey of laws applied to journalism, as an attempt to provide a comprehensive, yet detailed account of emerging threats and challenges to the function and formats of journalism as a democracy-driven act. We explore therefore the factors of journalism governance, which is the process by which a combination of practices and institutional interactions result in a regulatory environment. This environment can be constituted by formally law-prescribed conditions, such as the national constitutional laws that provide for free press and the unionization of journalists, but also in more informal ways that nonetheless have a regulatory effect on the practice of journalism.

Journalism faces enormous challenges both from within and beyond the profession. Job security for reporters has become increasingly precarious in the context of financial crisis, but also in the context of media ownership concentration. The management of technological change has also contributed to greater precariousness for journalists, as demands on journalists’ time and output (to produce rolling content not for one outlet but for many) rise while the resources provided shrink. Moreover, user-generated content and new forms of journalism, such as advocacy and civil journalism, have challenged the dominant paradigms of ‘doing’ journalism in many ways. This means that due to a combination of structural, technological, and political factors, public trust in the media and the integrity of journalism has eroded. A combination of these “corrosive” challenges, which are contributing to a “de-professionalization” of journalism, with the further erosion of trust, has raised the specter of the end of journalism as it has been known since its modern-day inception in the seventeenth century (Dahlgren & Splichal 2016: 11). One of the fundamental, immediate challenges for ‘legacy’ journalism is identifying as-yet elusive funding models that generate media outlet life-sustaining income in a digital age (Franklin 2012).

We are exploring these factors and focus more intensively on the new challenges they create and what it means for journalism and free press, but also, as a consequence, for society and the possibly the future of democratic polities. The chapter focuses on: media ownership concentration and lack of regulation impacting detrimentally on media diversity and pluralism as an ‘old’ challenge reasserting itself anew; the practices and emerging laws of surveillance and their effect on personal and professional dimensions of journalism; and the increasingly urgent issue of safety of journalists as a combination of lack of employment protection and impunity for the perpetrators of murder. In all these areas, regulation in the form of formal law and state intervention for the protection of journalists and media pluralism is weak. These three areas are emerging, we argue, as the terrain of struggle not only for press freedom, but also for freedom in the world. Plurality, safety, and anonymity, the three fundamental values undermined by ownership concentration, killings of journalists, and surveillance have long-scale and long-term effects for societies at the level of individual civil liberties.

2Media ownership, political interests and corporate pressure

Press freedom, including the watchdog role of journalism in its democratic service to the public, can be threatened by interference with editorial independence by owners, politicians, and corporate powerbrokers. A result of this can be that certain journalists and media outlets shed adversarial journalism in favour of complicit coverage: this appeared to be true when Britain’s The Sunday Times – just before the government released a draft of the controversial new Investigatory Powers Bill on surveillance – was granted exclusive access to the GCHQ spy agency and then ran in-depth non-critical features on the agency.13 On the corporate front, there was the example of Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, which was accused by its former chief political commentator Peter Oborne of soft-pedalling coverage of the HSBC banking tax avoidance scandal because HSBC was one of its prime advertising clients.14 “A fraud on readers” is how he described the coverage, adding that it was “a most sinister development” that “goes to the heart of our democracy”.15 Meanwhile, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway called the bluff of Hewlett-Packard by writing a brusque riposte – which the newspaper published – to alleged commercial pressure by its spokesperson, who was apparently unhappy with her coverage of the company.16 And then there’s the boycott tactic, used by everyone from the former Manchester United football team manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the BBC,17 to US President Obama with Fox News,18 and presidential candidate Donald Trump, again with Fox News.19 In some instances, journalists have reacted by creating entities that do not depend for their funding on advertising from either private companies or the state, or on public funds. These models include news outlets fully owned by the journalists themselves, those dependent on a trust fund, and those supported by independent philanthropists, as well as crowd-sourced models.

The vital but rapidly evolving role in international communications and media policy-making of supranational institutions and actors with global reach and influence in media governance mean that any analysis of drivers, techniques, and areas of policymaking and policy processes may occur in de-nationalized spaces (Sarikakis 2012). Such spaces are occupied by a variety of actors and entities including large Western-dominated multinational media conglomerates such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, or Time Warner. Today, the dual nature of media outlets as both political and economic entities is being consolidated (Napoli 1997), with non-public media driven primarily by the profit maximization imperative or, increasingly in the context of the global media crisis, the loss minimization perspective. Thus, while powerful actors and entities seek to shape government and other communications and media policy in a variety of ways, media entities and news outlets themselves can be useful tools in that quest. Something as simple as news story selection (Epstein 1974) can be performed in accordance with the economic and/or policy-influencing goals of the management of the media outlet, which may in turn be aligned with political and corporate elites. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose British journalism assets include top-selling British tabloid The Sun, the national broadsheet The Times and audiovisual giant Sky Television, which part owns Sky News, was very close to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Before that, The Sun famously ran the now notorious headline “It’s the Sun wot won it” in reference to its campaigning against the Labour party candidate in the run-up to the 1992 British general election and the subsequent surprise victory by the Conservative party.

In a new geostrategic world marked by multipolar powers, the notion of freedom of expression and the media and policy ‘promoting’ it, are used to couch the promotion of sociocultural views that further national interests. A number of states have adopted policies promoting their interests in the world of globalized public opinion and competing news channels, in an information war of the airwaves. France set up France 24, publicly funded and broadcasting in a variety of languages including Spanish and English. Germany has expanded its international news channel Deutsche Welle. Russia has set up Russia Today as well as a 24-hour Arabic-language international news broadcaster. China has CCTV and Iran established Press TV to influence public opinion through the dissemination of information that reflects national and geostrategic goals and values. The most prominent example has been the rise of Qatar-based and -funded Al Jazeera, initially accused by many Western governments of being a platform for terrorist propaganda because it aired portions of interviews with Osama bin Laden. This in turn led to issues of democratization and access, with the US forbidding any US carriers from broadcasting Al Jazeera on US soil. Al Jazeera had to set up its own US affiliate, Al Jazeera America, to broadcast and operate there, but the channel is closing down after failing to capture enough market share at a time of declining oil revenue limiting Qatar’s willingness to continue to bankroll it.

Despite the growing corporate and transnational political influence of post-colonial actors, the world still does not have a post-colonial global media platform capable of competing in terms of international reach with outlets like CNN, the BBC, or Fox News. International Western broadcasters are still usually the platforms of choice for many international business and political elites seeking to transmit a strategic message [including through advertising] to the world or to specific policymaking counterparts. This reality is aggravated by the ‘digital divide’, and questions arise as to whether or not efforts should be made to promote a more equitable geographic distribution of technology as opposed to allowing market forces to rule.

Audiovisual journalism sector regulation should promote environments that do not tend towards a news flow and information monopoly, so that the public interest in having a diverse, pluralistic breadth of journalistic content is served. However, when media ownership is politically tied with government figures, there is a danger that the public interest dynamic can be skewed. For example, the rise of media mogul Rupert Murdoch to a media market position of unrivalled power in the UK was in great part due to his ability to cultivate interest-advancing political ties with more than one prime minister (D’Arma 2011). The media pluralism and media freedom goals that underpin European Union-wide regulatory policy as set out by the European Commission are understood to be vital ingredients for the continued functioning of healthy democracy (Brogi & Parcu 2014).

Political backing for moves by Rupert Murdoch to enhance media holdings in the UK illustrated the danger that when nebulous behind-the-scenes state-corporate deals get in the way of public-good-promoting communications and media policies journalism suffers because for one thing there is no guarantee of a plethora of different voices. Let us imagine if in the UK in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, all of the national broadsheet newspapers had been in the hands of corporate interests unwilling for corporate-political reasons to criticize the government. There would not have existed the situation in which The Guardian and The Independent – whose print edition has since been shuttered after three decades – stood against the war editorially, and the public would have been deprived of reporting highlighting the shortcomings in the British government’s approach to the invasion, and therefore of their right to accurate information. The government would in turn not have been held to account, at least in terms of public opinion, which informs opinions in elections.

At direct odds with the EU parliament’s urging of the European Commission to take steps to curb media diversity narrowing in the EU is a reluctance on the part of many EU member states to relinquish national media sovereignty, to EU-wide regulation. This is part of an array of practical and political impediments to any institutional EU effort to counter media concentration and promote diversity – essential ingredients for informed citizenries in healthy democracies (Doyle 2007). Despite the recognition of indicators, by monitoring bodies such as the Council of Europe and the European Audiovisual Observatory, pointing towards media concentration and media holdings enlargement, coupled with weak or ineffective domestic national regulation, efforts to counter this trend face numerous obstacles. While one of the EU institutional policymaker concerns related to media concentration is the impact this may have on the financial and economic performance of a media sector, the second concern is the detrimental impact the absence of a diverse, pluralistic spectrum of information sources and content may have on democratic health. In the EU and elsewhere there is a strong documented precedent for industrialists’ investment in media as a way of augmenting political influence and consolidating control over other business interests (Harcourt & Picard 2009). But impediments to media diversity can also stem from structural dynamics from within the media themselves. A (2015: 399) study by Bodinger-De Uriarte and Valgeirsson found that in the United States “meaningful diversification of staff and news coverage is impeded by established newsroom culture and by the lack of structural mechanisms to facilitate such change”. The findings indicated “serious ‘disconnects’ among the institutions of professional journalism, dissipating the ‘environmental pressure’ for diversification and miring contemporary US newsrooms in outmoded ‘monoculturalism’”.

3Conditions of work and potential effect on democracy

Any public policy discourse in theory promotes quality journalism including diversity that fosters social equality, informs, and provides cultural variety. In reality, public policy discourse is infused strongly with the narratives of dominant stakeholders motivated by expansionary aspirations, in a stark illustration of the self-propelling dynamic of neo-liberal media and communications markets, complete with visions of Information Society liberation and democratization. The net outcome at a time of profit maximization priorities for private media and austerity for public media can be a diminution of the amount of quality journalism that fulfils public broadcasting prerogatives or satisfies the values that underpin quality journalism even in private media outlets.

Neoliberalist and other political powerbrokers seek to influence journalism policy with respect to public service broadcasting, ostensibly the purview of equitable access, quality, information diversity, and maximization of social equality. They are seeking to redefine the notion of public interest in as far as it relates to public broadcasters such as the BBC, a move already initiated under the UK’s Labour government of Tony Blair (Freedman 2008) which set its sights on a laissez-faire deregulation of the market. In Hungary and Poland, where there have been trends towards illiberal democracy, new governments automatically set about ‘cleansing’ the public broadcasters and refashioning them more like state broadcasters. Much of current communications and media policy-making as it pertains to journalism is seen through the lens linking media to telecoms, and the governance of that space, from notions involving net neutrality, online surveillance by authorities and corporate entities, licensing in the digital age, and supposedly independent regulatory authorities focused on digital contexts, to the evolution from public interest to profit maximization.

Among those actors at the core of amorphous trans-border communications policymaking influence in the twenty-first century are elite politicians whose spheres of influence are potent but nebulous, percolating through a commanding grey zone of governments, think tanks, telecommunications and news media interests, private corporations, public entities and so on. Because many of the strategies employed by these actors to influence communications and media policy are informal and opaque they can be difficult to trace and attempts to analyse and gauge their effectiveness can prove challenging. Also to be considered are the not-easily-definable publics who interact with policy outcomes in informal ways, including through the consumption of news media across a growing variety and number of platforms, with such interaction incorporating notions and expressions of dissent. A key question is: How is the public interest served in communications policy and the regulations that should stem from it?

There are, then, two sides to the communications policy coin: On the one hand, policy effectiveness can be measured in terms of outcome for private, economic actors, including the media industry, and other transnational actors and entities including politicians, governments, and nation states. On the other, outcome is in theory measurable in terms of the degree to which communications and media policies serve the public interest which in turn is inextricably bound up with levels of democratic participation (or not) in general, and in the policy-making process in particular, and with the promotion of equitable social developments and the fostering of cultural diversity and representation. From a public interest perspective, side two of the coin is the one that really matters, and yet it increasingly finds itself trapped in a face-off with hegemonic constructions bound up with the promotion of side one interests, i.e. those of private companies and political elites. We can therefore speak of “minoritized majorities” (Chakravartty & Sarikakis 2006).

Especially within the European Union, debate exists about whether or not the right model is so-called “dirigisme” – active state involvement in media policy making – vs. the “laissez-faire” approach (Collins 1994; Harcourt 2005; Moore 1997; etc.) favoured by neo-liberalists. Ironically, though, the promotion of the neoliberal framework for media and communications policy actually requires a significant degree of regulation too (Humphreys 1996), so that we may be talking about reregulation as opposed to the absence of regulation. Active state efforts to shape media and communications policymaking, including public broadcasting, or guaranteeing a variety of broadcast platforms for journalistic output, are treated with disdain by neoliberal view-holders (e.g., Bandow 1994). In developing countries, they perceive such involvement as an invitation to the nefarious effects of corruption while in Western democracies it is seen as paternalistic meddling that runs counter to intrinsic free market values and goals and therefore is a barrier to individual freedom too – which neoliberals see as an exportable product through global digital media platforms. This may explain Google’s plan to provide Internet access through Google balloons to remote areas of the planet.

In some ways the EU model – which allows for greater citizen input into policymaking than under the dominant, neoliberal-led US model – serves as a counterbalance or at least a pointer in terms of greater democratization of the communications and media policy debate. Generally speaking though there is a sense that even in Western democracies broad sections of the public or even the public as a whole are excluded from the media policy-making process, which is handled by an interconnected elite in what Freedman (2008) calls “inter elite communication”. These elites are political, financial, and ideological, spanning a full interconnected spectrum and highlighting, especially in the Information Age, the interconnectivity of politics and economics under the umbrella of information ideology.

At the heart of twenty-first-century communications and media policy-making lies the question of whether greater importance should be attributed to the economic, or the social-cultural, value of information, which in turn raises the issue of democratic legitimacy, i.e. the degree to which all stakeholders, including ordinary citizens, are involved in the policymaking process (Mansell 2014). On the economic vs. social-cultural spectrum it appears that the closer one approaches economic neoliberal values the less involved the citizenry is in policymaking. There is less room for divergent opinions, citizen feedback, and critical self-reflection. The one area in which a democratizing shift towards greater citizen involvement is apparent is the shift from public media- or corporate media-generated content to user-generated content (Mansell 2014), including in the form of citizen journalism. However, questions remain about impact and reliability, and therefore the degree to which such user-generated content contributes measurably to promoting the public interest.

Structural parameters affecting the politics and policy of journalism also include job uncertainty at a time of enduring crisis for many news media outlets, low pay and the effects of the financial and media crisis on management willingness and ability to commit to a policy of quality news-gathering and coverage. These increased uncertainties have also led to growing job security anxiety and cynicism vis-à-vis management in the newsroom (Ekdale et al. 2015). Dramatic and rapid technological change has compounded these developments. The expectation on the part of consumers that news must be available on a rolling virtually instantaneous basis has led the New York Times, for example, to do away with its evening deadline. It now has a series of rolling deadlines. Sky News and other media outlets have a policy of not allowing their journalists to “break news” on Twitter. Even public media are, in the age of austerity, driven by the need to shrink budgets, if not maximize profit. An example is the BBC closing down various stations and channels, including the broadcast version of BBC3, which is now available only online. Ironically, the target audience of BBC3 is younger generations, up to late 20s, so the message is sent that it is the next generation that is being disadvantaged or indeed delivered into the arms of private media. Additionally, it is widely perceived that the quality of journalism on CNN has deteriorated since the glory days of founder Ted Turner, who subsequently sold CNN to Time Warner, and star reporters such as Peter Jennings who covered the 1991 Gulf War live from a Baghdad hotel roof – and yet the profit margin of CNN has never been healthier. It is argued that owners Time Warner are not primarily motivated by the pursuit of top quality journalism but by the maximization of profit including through advertising deals that critics have suggested impact on editorial decisions. McDowell (1997) argues that major cost-cutting is not a long-term solution for news brands as they seek to prop up underperforming profit margins amid twin challenges of consumer moves to commodified news on a variety of social media platforms and economic recession. He suggests that sustained deep cost-cutting does more damage than good to a major news outlet’s brand reputation. It is only he argues through successful brand management, that the legacy media giants will be able to carve out their point of difference niche and hold on to it. If they don’t, then the aggregators and amateurs win – and democracy loses.

Increasingly, such social media giants – with massive public valuations on Western stock exchanges fuelling the global market expansion in the Information Age – are also blurring the line between journalism and branded content that is far from balanced and is not really journalism. Private media and social media corporations have an interest in branding it as journalism, but it is in fact a nonjournalistic media platform for narratives that promote certain communications policies and politics. Such media platforms can surreptitiously but significantly influence global communications and media policy debates. For example, there is no transparency about how Facebook News is filtered. Red Bull Media, a media content offshoot of the Red Bull corporate empire, with head offices in Salzburg, Austria and Southern California, espouses “journalism” that is in essence branded content pushing a Western-led narrative about brand energy in a high-velocity barrier-free global age of market driven expansion, with the ultimate goal of increasing Red Bull profit and promoting communications policies that facilitate this. Questions have also been raised about the proximity of the Vice News and Buzzfeed models to branded content.

4Safety of journalists

Journalists’ safety figures prominently among the structural parameters linked to the policy and politics of journalism. In the last 20 years it has become the policy of big media outlets, with the financial wherewithal, to pay greater attention to protecting their journalists, including through hostile environment training courses, the provision of security personnel in the field, and ensuring that they have the proper equipment (Tait 2007). Journalist killings have become not a just a matter of ‘collateral damage’ as in earlier times, but a strategic tool for combatants in armed conflict (Tait 2007). A total of 1,189 journalists have been killed since 1992 simply for doing their job, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).20 Well over half of them were killed with complete impunity, CPJ reports. The United Nations Human Rights Council considers impunity to be the main reason why journalists continue to be killed in such high numbers. Across the world, journalists are confronted with a broad array of constant threats. Furthermore, women in journalism experience greater risks than their male colleagues. They are more likely to be affected by sexual abuse, violence, assaults, or online threats (cf. Parmar 2015: 42). That is why the UN Human Rights Council is urging a gender-sensitive approach to journalism safety by states. Most of the journalists were killed in their home country (88 percent) – only 12 percent were citizens of foreign countries. Murder accounted for more than 60 percent of all the cases; just over 20 percent of the journalists killed in that time frame were killed in crossfire in conflict zones. The most dangerous country in that time-frame was Iraq. The nine other most dangerous countries were: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia and Syria.

Journalists’ killings have risen up the policy agenda of nation states, in the context of international politics. UN resolutions have been passed enshrining the safety of journalists. And yet journalism is becoming more, not less, dangerous, according to statistics regularly published by NGOs and other organizations involved in promoting journalism safety. A broad array of NGOs such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders, Article 19, and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) promote journalists’ safety and freedom of expression as guarantors of democratic human rights more broadly. They have mobilized to ascertain why journalist killings are on the rise and to elucidate the conditions under which these killings take place. They note that under international human rights law states are obligated to protect the right to life and freedom of expression. Thus, they must also protect media workers, including against threats from non-state actors.

International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations have in recent years passed resolutions, declarations, initiatives, and statements focused explicitly on the duty of states to protect journalists. In 2011, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a Resolution on the state of media freedom in Europe highlighting the duty of states to protect journalists against attacks on their lives and freedom of expression, as well as a recommendation on the protection of journalistic sources (Council of Europe 2011). In November 2013, the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Media and Information Society passed a Resolution on the safety of journalists, and in April 2014 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a declaration on “the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and other media actors (Council of Europe Committee of Ministers 2013)”. In April 2015, the Council of Europe launched an online platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists after the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted, in January 2015, Resolution 2035 (2015) on the “Protection of the safety of journalists and of media freedom in Europe” (Council of Europe 2015b), in the immediate aftermath of the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo. That resolution reiterated the importance of media freedom for democracy, noting that “any attack on the media and journalists is an attack on a democratic society”.

The United Nations has also focused on the topic of the protection of journalists’ safety in recent years. In May 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2222 on “protection of civilians in armed conflict”, expressing deep concern at the growing threat to journalists and associated media personnel, including killings, kidnapping, and hostage-taking by terrorist groups (United Nations 2015). The Security Council, echoing the Council of Europe, noted that it is the primary responsibility of states to protect journalists and safeguard the right of free expression (United Nations 2015). The UN Security Council had already adopted Resolution 1738 in 2006, condemning attacks against journalists – who should be treated as civilians under international law – in conflict situations (United Nations 2006) and highlighting the responsibility of states in this context, and their obligation to “end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations”. In September 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution on the safety of journalists noting that journalists must be protected not only in conflict zones and condemning arbitrary or illegal communications surveillance of journalists. It too called on states to implement concrete measures to tackle impunity. The same UN body in September 2012 passed a resolution on the “Safety of journalists” (International Press Institute 2012) expressing “concern that violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression continue to occur, including increased attacks against, and killings of, journalists and media workers”, and underscoring “the need to ensure greater protection for all media professionals and for journalistic sources”. This Resolution also identified as a growing threat to the safety of journalists non-state actors, including terrorist groups and criminal organizations. And like other resolutions it too noted that attacks against journalists often occur with impunity, and called upon states “to ensure accountability” and to “promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference including through legislative measures”. In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/163 on “The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity” (United Nations 2014). It also proclaimed 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists and urged Member States “to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, speedy and effective investigations into all alleged violence against journalists and media workers falling within their jurisdiction and to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies”. UNESCO, in 1997, passed Resolution 29 on the “Condemnation of violence against journalists”, which underscored that that “the assassination of journalists goes beyond depriving people of their lives as it involves a curtailment of freedom of expression, with all that this implies as a limitation on the freedoms and rights of society as a whole” (UNESCO 2007).

Despite the solidifying international legislative framework for journalists, the risks are not decreasing in great part because of a failure to challenge impunity. The number of journalists killed between 1992 and 2016 covering conflict zones is lower [38 percent of the total] than the number killed covering politics [47 percent of the total], according to figures published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).21 A total of 21 percent were killed covering human rights, 20 percent reporting on corruption, and 15 percent covering crime. In total, 62 percent of journalists killed on the job died outside of conflict zones. A total of 782 were murdered, compared to 247 killed in combat or crossfire. Of the 1,182 journalists killed in that time-frame 686 were killed with impunity. This tells us that in many countries there must be a policy of allowing impunity to thrive, or at least the absence of a political will to bring perpetrators to justice. The consequence of this, in turn, is that even in countries with at least a degree of press freedom, purported policies of promoting the public interest through independent journalism of public value are undermined by the impunity with which those seeking to silence journalists holding public sector and private persons to account are able to do so. The continued killing and physical attacking of journalists promotes a culture of fear and self-censorship, especially when these violent acts go unpunished.

5Surveillance: Another threat to journalism

The term “safety of journalists” generally connotes physical threats through crossfire in conflict zones or physical targeting in the field, as well as arbitrary arrest and harassment, unfair trial, imprisonment without trial, imprisonment in abusive conditions etc. But in recent years, rapidly advancing surveillance technologies coupled with a recognition of their usefulness in countering a free press by a variety of entities has emerged as a growing and major threat to press freedom and also the physical and psychological safety of journalists. The scope of the threat became clearer after the revelations by Edward Snowden about mass metadata gathering and concerns began to snowball about the risk of surveillance, just like other threats and forms of intimidation, fuelling self-censorship which results in politicians not being held to account, and policies not being questioned. Together these threats also reinforce the notion that, on the political front, prominent among political and private elites’ priorities is the reinforcement and retention of the “capacity to control the media to reinforce legitimacy or fortify a regime’s hold on power” (Waisbord & Morris 2001: xi–xii). This involves controlling the flow and content of communication by journalists.

There are diverging views within the neoliberal approach of the degree to which surveillance of media and communications spaces is to be accepted, with some neoliberal political policymakers or influencers pushing back against increased surveillance after initially offering a degree of complicity in the provision of access. Technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo subsequently publicly changed their tune to be in line with consumer frustration at apparent invasion of privacy in the post-Snowden world. Freedom for technology behemoths such as Facebook, Apple, and Google now means not just increased access and utility but also freedom from intrusion. Hence the whole debate about encryption for example, which also has repercussions for journalism in general and investigative journalism in particular. It may also explain the reasons why Apple refused to provide backdoor access, upon request by the FBI, to the iPhone of one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in December 2015, in the US city of San Bernardino. The dynamic applies also to consumer surveillance, for which technology companies that in many instances are increasingly creating a blend of advertising and branded-content ‘news’, often under the banner of ‘journalism’, seek to promote policies that reduce privacy and allow for the all-important consumer surveillance that allows them to serve the advertisers off whom they make their revenue. At a certain level, consumer surveillance and state surveillance can merge. For example, a private company handles vehicular licence plate recognition for a series of police departments in the US, and every year social media giants acquiesce to thousands of requests for individual account information from law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, many but not all of which may be legitimate.

The Snowden revelation, which showed a close acquiescent relationship between social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, and US and UK intelligence agencies obtaining big data has raised questions, in a techno-information capitalism age, about the communications policy influence information platform owners have acquired, from universities to think tanks to political forums and the corridors of government and military power. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently refused to allow the FBI backdoor access to the encrypted mobile phone of the alleged perpetrator of the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, not necessarily because he cares about the privacy of individuals – Apple was happy to cooperate with US investigating authorities in the past – but because in the post-Snowden world, the perception by consumers, the drivers of revenue, that Apple does not care about privacy is bad for business.

Control of information content through intensified surveillance, including mass surveillance, of journalists and the media, occurs not just in undemocratic countries but in Western democracies too, where public sector whistle-blowers are also being targeted with increased zealousness. In fact, the Obama administration has gone after more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations combined22 and in one recent high-profile case sought to compel Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist James Risen to identify confidential sources in a CIA whistleblower trial.23 Ostensibly, this is about a policy of getting the democratic balance right between security and freedom but critics suggest it is at times more about an entrenched policy of controlling information content. As Lyon (2015) notes, the notion of a balance or trade-off between privacy and security or liberty is “matched only by its hollowness”. Balance is actually a vacuous term that nonetheless speciously bolsters the suggestion that freedom of speech, of the media, of assembly, of expression must be limited in the pursuit of some ill-defined concept of national security. Following 11 September, then-US President George W. Bush permitted the US security services to flout standard judicial procedure in their quest for communications information that would “keep America safe” (Greenwald 2014). Since then, and in response to further attacks, Western democratic countries have pursued a policy of seeking to pass legislation that enshrines in law expanded surveillance powers that critics have warned threaten fundamental democratic rights, including freedom of expression, and also threaten watchdog, particularly investigative, journalism.

Even in Western democracies, such surveillance can promote a ‘Panopticon’ effect – in reference to a prison design conceived of by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century allowing for the constant [possibility of] surveillance of inmates (Bentham 1791). Just the perception of the possibility of surveillance, in the context of perceived ubiquitous surveillance, has a chilling effect, even if the surveillance is not continuous (Foucault 1977 & Bart 2005). For instance, Internet users in the US are wary of discussing Edward Snowden online (Lyon 2015). A Stanford University experiment by pyschologists Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo entitled the “Chilling Effects of Surveillance” found that in the US the “threat or actuality of government surveillance may psychologically inhibit free speech” (Greenwald 2015: 180).

It is not just everyday citizens who are intimidated by this policy. The chilling effect affects investigative journalists and the confidential sources and whistle-blowers upon whom investigative watchdog journalism relies (Human Rights Watch, 2014). If sources are less willing to come forward, because they are afraid they can be identified by the state through surveillance, and if journalists are also intimidated, it is easy to see how the information flow narrative can be subtly ‘cleansed’, through a process of induced self-censorship, by states seeking to bring about the omission of content that holds public officials to account for wrongdoing.

Investigative journalists may not worry about being tortured in Western democracies, but the fear of possible surveillance, which can fuel a degree of paranoia about real and imagined risks of retribution, including arrest and imprisonment under anti-terror legislation, is enough to compel many journalists to ignore sensitive stories about the state in particular and therefore from holding state actors to account. Under such circumstances, especially in democracies that are already displaying political tendencies towards illiberalism, populism, nationalism etc., the threat of democratic erosion is very real. The Snowden leaks revealed that it has been the policy of Western intelligence agencies to promote “paranoia” among those challenging the system. And the Stanford psychologists White and Zimbardo noted: “The boundaries between paranoid delusions and justified cautions indeed become tenuous (Greenwald 2015).”

In the 1970s the Washington Post revealed that in the US the FBI had established domestic counterintelligence programme COINTELPRO, which monitored, and sought to discredit, a variety of domestic activists including those affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the anti-war movement, socialists, Communists etc. (Greenwald 2015). The revelations, which the New York Times suppressed at the behest of the FBI, led to the creation of the Senate Church Committee which found: “[Over the course of 15 years] the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.” One of the COINTELPRO memos noted that “paranoia” could be engendered among anti-war activists by convincing them there “was an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.

More recently, in the UK, after The Guardian newspaper reported on the Snowden surveillance revelations, it was forced to smash up computer hard drives on which Snowden material had ostensibly been stored – even though copies of the material existed elsewhere – under the watchful eye of two GCHQ spy agency officers.24 In the UK again, journalists who have reported on environmental activists opposed to fracking have been informed that they are under investigation but in a Kafkaesque paranoia-inducing twist are told nothing about the investigation.25 In some instances, they have subsequently managed to find out that they have been under close secret surveillance. Also in the UK, in 2015, the Metropolitan Police allegedly abused anti-terror legislation to spy on journalists’ phones, to identify a confidential source.26 This was after a year earlier it emerged that the police had routinely been spying on UK reporters who covered protests, for years.27 And Snowden documents released in 2015 indicated that journalists’ emails from the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Sun, NBC, and the Washington Post had been swept up by British spying agency GCHQ.28 In the US, in 2013, it emerged that the government, going after a leak, had secretly seized switchboard records for phones used by over 100 reporters for the US Associated Press news agency in Washington DC and elsewhere.29 Just weeks later came reports that the government had also secretly seized the phone and email records for Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen, in an effort to obtain information about his interaction with a source they believed had violated the Espionage Act.30

It is not difficult to imagine that the paranoia of the sort apparently deliberately fuelled by the FBI, and described by White and Zimbardo, could lead to self-censorship on the part of journalists. In authoritarian countries such surveillance is combined with the very real risk of torture, unfair trial followed by lengthy imprisonment under abusive conditions, murder, physical attack, and a variety of other threats. And in the post-11 September age, increased surveillance has traditionally gone hand in hand with other anti-terrorism legislation such as France’s prolonged state of emergency following the December 2015 attacks, which expands the powers of the police and other security services to search, censor, and detain. The Patriot Act had a similar effect in the US. The advent of the Internet of Things, meanwhile, in which a plethora of devices are digitally connected, means that even if journalists and whistle-blowers implement digital security when they are communicating online, intelligence services have a wealth of other sources from which to gather information – including, for example, audio devices from smart TVs which send unencrypted audio information to third-party servers. A broad array of personal data, including that of journalists, is held in various databases which are susceptible to intrusion not just by intelligence agencies but also criminals who may have a nefarious interest in placing information in the public domain, or may be working in the shadows on behalf of government security agencies.

Even in democratic countries surveillance of journalists – either legal or illegal – can take a heavy toll and damage press freedom and therefore democratic health. Journalistic confidential sources – upon whom watchdog journalism is reliant – are increasingly fearful of being identified through surveillance, despite efforts by them, and the journalists, to protect their anonymity. Journalists, especially those reporting on sensitive topics such as national security, increasingly sense that confidential sources’ willingness to speak up is being diminished by the threat of advanced surveillance and the willingness by a broad array of actors including government agencies to use it – sometimes illicitly – to identify confidential sources. Additionally, journalists who reported on the Wikileaks and Snowden stories recall being placed under surveillance, both electronic and physical. Many of them were subjected to harassment as they travelled through US and UK airports, and in at least one instance, an Italian airport, by border agents who subjected them to secondary screening or delayed them for unsubstantiated reasons. Some journalists say this has generated a sense of paranoia, which can be debilitating or at least prompt self-censorship. A prominent Russian journalist who is an expert on surveillance, said that the paranoia generated by surveillance can “destroy” journalists (Mills & Sarikakis 2016).

Journalists in both democratic and authoritarian countries are having to adapt to the Panoptic surveillance world, by becoming experts in digital security, educating and protecting sources digitally, and adopting media outlet models that are completely independent of any government influence, financing, or leverage. A form of subversive journalism, often making use of the skills of hacktivists, has been born from this surveillance and is involved in a tug of war with those carrying out the surveillance, while civil society groups play a linked role in seeking to counter increased surveillance

In addition, in the wake of 11 September and other terrorist attacks, and despite landmark court rulings in Europe underscoring the rights of EU citizens to privacy, such as the EU Court of Human Rights decision involving Austrian student Max Schrems, who challenged the right of Facebook to transfer his personal information to the US where there were no guarantees it would not fall prey to the type of mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, there is now again a Western state policy of prioritizing security over privacy. This policy was compounded by the terror attacks in January & November 2015 in Paris, including on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino in the US, and the refugee crisis afflicting the European Union.

The knock-on effect of this is apparent in France where a state of emergency imposed after the December 2015 attacks, and curtailing basic freedoms, was extended by parliament till at least May 2016. Some political voices have even called for tougher EU-wide security legislation. Across the EU, national security legislation is prioritizing surveillance and other restrictive mechanisms over freedom of expression, privacy etc., and creating a chilling effect for journalists, especially the watchdog investigative journalists who should be holding governments to account, and their whistleblower and other confidential sources. These developments roll back policies favouring privacy, such as the establishment and empowerment of national data protection agencies independent of the political decision-making processes. And at a time of increased importance attached to the bottom line, some private media outlets have sought to ratchet up internal surveillance in an apparent aim to increase productivity. For example, journalists at Britain’s The Daily Telegraph showed up at work one morning to discover that management had installed monitors at their desks that recorded when they were away from their work stations. After an ensuing uproar the plan was cancelled.


Not merely the laws protecting free speech, but practices governing the practice of journalism regulate today the profession, and ultimately free speech. We see that even in mature democracies efforts are intensifying to reduce the free spaces for genuinely adversarial oversight journalism, especially on sensitive topics such as national security. Historically, unparalleled state and corporate surveillance technologies, coupled with a zealous willingness to use them, all too often outside the grey-zone parameters of the law, are fuelling self-censorship among journalists and ordinary citizens, with all the nefarious consequences this entails for democratic transparency and accountability. A surveillance-industrial complex, in which state intelligence agencies interact opaquely with usually acquiescent private companies engaged in corporate surveillance of citizens, including journalists, results in private-sphere information such as metadata, phone and email records being made available to government bodies whose number one priority is not press freedom and the enhancement of democracy. In democracies, this fuels a chilling effect. In repressive countries, it forms the basis for the killing, physical assault, arrest, torture, and imprisonment after unfair trials of scores of journalists.

The safety of journalists remains under intense threat across the globe. In conflict zones journalists continue to die in crossfire despite their protected status as civilians under international law. In and outside conflict zones, they continue to be deliberately targeted for harm because of their jobs. In many parts of the world there is no longer a distinction drawn by parties to a conflict between a journalist and combatant. Unchallenged impunity fuels the murder and assault of reporters covering everything from war to politics, crime [especially corruption] and human rights, despite an increasingly comprehensive international legislative framework on the safety of journalists including resolutions from the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

Journalism can play a vital role in the advancement of the public interest through communications policy, by affording parliamentarians and civil society representatives greater space to express their views. Especially but not only in the form of public media, journalism is a crucial element in the communications policy discourse. At best it serves the public interest, satisfying the right to information, and bolstering democracy. At worst it operates as a lopsided or even dissent-extinguishing tool for the advancement of policy interests of the corporate and political elite at the expense of transparency, accountability, and democracy.

Those espousing the virtues of globalization have suggested that “technologies of freedom” are essentially democratizing and allow citizens to challenge state control (Pool 1983). It has further been argued that the figurative and literal disintegration of borders in a globalized world, coupled with the purported virtues of global capitalism, would facilitate this process (Ohmae 1990: 80). And it has been suggested that rapid technological diversification and evolution, hand in hand with a weakening of the ability and willingness of governments to regulate national broadcasting and telecommunications, sparks an “empowerment through expansion of choice of means of communication” for citizens. The increasing power of private international technology companies, as well as the rise and rapid development of new media, especially digital news media platforms available on mobile phones, so the logic goes, erodes state sovereignty as defined by state border spheres of influence and leads to greater transparency and accountability.

However, the digital Information Society market interests of Western corporate technology giants converge with those of Western governments and indeed their intelligence agencies, and this results in a desired global, cultural and technological dominance. One of the top-secret NSA slides revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden stated categorically: “Let’s be blunt – the Western world (especially the US) gained influence and made a lot of money via the drafting of earlier [Internet] standards; the US was the major player in shaping today’s Internet. This resulted in pervasive exportation of American culture as well as technology. It also resulted in a lot of money being made by US entities” (Greenwald 2015).

Further reading

A comprehensive analysis of the challenges to media policy in a transnational interconnected context is offered by Chakravartty and Sarikakis (2006) in the book Media Policy & Globalization. Freedman (2008) offers another view in The Politics of Media Policy.

Bodinger-de-Uriarte & Valgeirsson (2015) ask what is holding back diversity in newsrooms, in their article “Institutional disconnects as obstacles to diversity in journalism in the United States”, while Doyle (2007) provides analysis of the challenge to media content diversity in Europe, in “Undermining media diversity: Inaction on media concentrations and pluralism in the EU”. Going back a little, Collins’ 1994 book Broadcasting and audio-visual policy in the European single market offers a useful platform from which to embark on an understanding of subsequent media policy developments in the EU. For an earlier look at the US TV news media landscape, Epstein’s 1973 book News from nowhere: Television and the news is extremely useful.

On the surveillance front, Bart (2005) provides a contemporary theoretical take on new forms of Panoptic surveillance in his article “Supervision, subjection and the new surveillance”, which can be rounded out with Greenwald’s 2015 book No Place to Hide; Edward Snowden, the NSA & the Surveillance State.


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Bodinger-de Uriarte, Cristina & Gunnar Valgeirsson. 2015. Institutional disconnects as obstacles to diversity in journalism in the United States. Journalism Practice 9(3). 399–417.

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