Courtney Radsch Explains Growing Risks for Journalists at Human Rights Workshop

At the first Fall 2018 Human Rights Workshop, Dr. Courtney Radsch discussed the rising threats facing journalists around the world — from diminishing credibility to arrest to murder.

Radsch, a former journalist, is the advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which tracks violations of journalists’ rights around the world. CPJ found that a record 262 journalists were imprisoned last year: 75% percent were convicted of anti-state charges, such as supporting terrorism; Radsch also pointed out that the number of journalists imprisoned for spreading ‘fake news’ had increased since 2016. Radsch noted that China, Turkey, and Egypt were responsible for more imprisonments of journalists than the rest of the world put together. But she was careful to bring up violations of journalists’ rights elsewhere, including the U.S., such as the arrests of journalists at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, the prosecution of leakers under the Espionage Act, and attacks on journalists at political rallies since the 2016 presidential election.

Radsch cautioned that it is difficult to know why the world is increasingly dangerous for journalists, but she posited several reasons, including the War on Terror and shifts in the way we use technology. Radsch argued that the evolving dominance of social media platforms has meant that journalists are now seen as disposable, rather than as the privileged intermediaries of information they once were. For instance, Radsch explained, al Qaeda did not tend to target journalists because they needed them to tell their story, whereas ISIS felt licensed to murder many journalists partly because they were able to tell their own story through social media.

Radsch explained that counterterrorism strategies have also weakened journalists’ power. She argued that surveillance laws have made it very difficult for journalists to protect their sources, and that efforts to police terrorist content online have often had unintended consequences for journalists. For example, Radsch said that when tech companies created tools to prevent terrorist organizations from uploading content to YouTube and other social media sites, they inadvertently censored local Syrian journalists who were attempting to cover war crimes.

Radsch stressed the need to rebuild public trust in the media and to condemn nations that violate journalists’ rights to free expression. But beyond those steps, Radsch admitted that she and her colleagues were unsure of what could be done to better protect journalists. She implied that one reason why journalists’ rights and credibility are in peril is that we have no cohesive or democratically-informed way of regulating the Internet. Rather, she explained, “tech companies largely regulate themselves or conform to regulations in countries where they want to operate.” Such self-regulation can result in less freedom for journalists, as in Radsch’s example of Google’s apparent plan to develop a censored version of its search engine in China.

Radsch wants tech companies to reduce censorship and increase transparency. She stressed that this can be accomplished through relatively simple, if proactive step: for instance, she proposed that Twitter might add some feature to signal whether an account was produced by a bot or a real person.

As an advocate of press freedom, Radsch wants to minimize censorship — both that caused by self-regulation and by countries passing laws to regulate online content. Radsch brought up Germany’s recent law that established different categories of illegal web content. The law was denounced by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, in part because it contracted private companies to censor web content. Radsch criticized the law’s lack of transparency and questioned the law’s premise, asking, “How do you know what content is illegal?” CPJ is advocating for more judicial oversight and transparency, so that the public can know on what basis the law differentiates between legal and illegal content and what content was removed as a result of the law. To Radsch, Germany’s attempt to police Internet use inside its borders also demonstrates that countries are foolishly trying to “replicate the Westphalian state system on Internet,” rather than view the web as extraterritorial.

Radsch said that if we do choose to regulate the Internet, we need to bring in the voices of many different stakeholders: “You need tech experts, representatives of civil society, academics, and many others deciding how we govern the Internet,” she said. “When you get single judge or panel of judges deciding how things work, that undermines that whole model of the Internet.” As Radsch concluded, journalists rely on a free Internet, and making the conversation about internet regulation more democratic is one key way to protect journalists in an increasingly threatening world.