Special Report: Press freedom under digital siege

Journalists the world over face increasing digital surveillance used to hamper press freedom, promote misinformation or discredit their work.

Press freedom, already in decline for 85 per cent of the world’s population, is under digital siege.

New digital business models, the development of surveillance technologies, the transparency of internet companies, and large-scale data collection and retention all pose risks to journalists and their sources, according to UNESCO, the UN agency tasked with fostering press freedom.

In some countries, new media laws have had the consequence (sometimes intended, other times unintended) of censoring journalists. Journalists also face growing levels of cyberbullying from often anonymous actors serving to discredit them and their independence. They also contend with AI-powered surveillance of their movements and automated attacks on their work.

“The constant evolution, undetectable, and increasing use of malware and spyware against journalists and human rights defenders by state and non-state actors, jeopardises a free and independent press,” says George Awad, National Programme Officer for Communication and Information at UNESCO Beirut.

“Surveillance can also expose information collected by journalists, including from whistleblowers, and violate source protection, a universal basic requirement for media freedom enshrined in United Nations resolutions.”

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Council called on Member States to “refrain from interference with the use of technologies such as encryption and anonymity tools”. Yet in recent years, 57 laws and regulations in 44 countries have been adopted or amended to threaten freedom of expression online.


In the six years to 2021, 455 journalists across the world were killed for doing their jobs. The number declining in most of the world, but it continues to rise in the Asia Pacific region.

Though killings of journalists have decreased over the past five years, imprisonment of journalists around the world has simultaneously increased. In 2021 China continued to be the biggest jailer of journalists, followed by Myanmar.

Online attacks against journalists are rising, and women are disproportionately affected. A 2021 survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries found that 73 per cent of women journalists had experienced some form of online violence. And 20 per cent had been attacked or abused offline in connection with the online violence they had experienced.

A global survey on journalism during the pandemic identified emerging threats of government surveillance (7 per cent); targeted digital security attacks, including phishing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), or malware (4 per cent); or forced data handover (3 per cent). One in five respondents reported that their experience of online abuse, harassment, threats or attacks was “much worse than usual” during the pandemic.

Percentage of surveyed female journalists who reported experiencing various forms of violence, separated by medium


Quotes attributable to Cherian George, Professor of Media Studies and Associate Dean for Research, Hong Kong Baptist University

“The digital revolution has helped make media more plural, participatory and protest-friendly. But its contribution to tolerant, diverse publics appears negligible or even negative. This is contrary to hopes two decades ago that the internet would help form a ‘digital public sphere’ far more democratic and inclusive than pre-digital society.”

“The 15 minutes of fame that digital media dishes out to people previously known as the audience does not necessarily add up to a national, let alone global, conversation that cuts across social and ideological divides.”

Quote attributable to Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Assistant Professor at the School of Media, Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. 

“The dominant narrative is that the media are responsible for spreading misinformation and disinformation, but studies show the main purveyors of false information are politicians.”

Quote attributable to Dina Septiani,  Assistant Professor and researcher in the Department of Communication, Faculty of Social and Political Science, Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya, Indonesia.

“​​In the past, the mass media could influence the public discussion by pushing a particular agenda, but now algorithms go further, distorting the public perception of the majority view and creating a spiral of silence.”


Outnumbered and outgunned, public-interest journalism losing to identity politics
Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University
Media systems have no answer for toxic polarisation. The development of a public-service internet and public-service media needs to be on the agenda.

Journalism’s hostage relationship with Twitter
Ruchira Sen, O.P. Jindal Global University
Forced to operate under digital siege while doing their job, journalists the world over need ready access to digital safety and law lessons.

Bangladeshi tech law would gag journalists, embed authoritarianism
Abdul Aziz, Queensland University of Technology
Already under fire from the Digital Security Act, Bangladeshi journalists face even worse censorship if a new piece of legislation gets up.

Media in the Philippines bite back against Duterte
Maria Diosa Labiste, University of the Philippines Diliman, Philippines
Duterte’s presidency rapidly eroded press freedom in the Philippines. Media organisations see the May elections as a chance to set things right.

Blamed, defamed, deported: media attacks on migrants in Malaysia
Kow Kwan Yee, UOW Malaysia KDU University College
Migrant workers keep the Malaysian economy humming during peak times. But when times got tough, they were scapegoated.

Four ways Southeast Asian journalists are under digital attack
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, University of Nottingham Malaysia
Authoritarian governments have weaponised online tools and platforms to control journalists and stifle freedom of expression.

Same game, new moves: digital threats to journalists in Indonesia
Masduki, Universitas Islam Indonesia
Authoritarianism has new tools and agents in the digital age. Strong laws are needed to protect journalists from surveillance, doxxing and disinformation.

Indonesia: weaponising algorithms to silence dissent
Dina Septiani, Airlangga University, Indonesia
Skewing the online discussion keeps the government in power and threatens media literacy

India’s overt and covert chilling of press freedom
Sukumar Muralidharan, O.P. Jindal Global University
The Pegasus spyware scandal triggered more questions than answers about how long the Indian government has been weaponising social media data.

Indonesian law systematically stifles journalists
Herlambang P. Wiratraman, Universitas Gadjah Mada
New media laws in Indonesia target journalists and infringe rights rather than protecting them

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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