A Decade in Review: Top International Press Freedom Stories from the 2010s

In 2010, social media reporting was in its infancy, the Syrian Civil War had not yet officially begun and the President of the United States was not labeling the press as the “enemy of the people.” Over the past decade, new technologies, conflicts, attacks and mass movements have shifted the media landscape, providing both new opportunities for members of the media and increased threats to press freedom. 

Although social media has allowed more people to participate in global reporting, the world continues to be a dangerous place for reporters. Last month, The Washington Post reported that a total of 554 journalists were killed worldwide in the past decade, some of whom were caught in crossfire or targeted in suicide bombs and shootings by gangs. 

While the following is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the most consequential stories of the decade, it highlights some of the ones that provide significant insight into how the evolution of technology over the past decade has forced reporting to also evolve, how technology such as social media have been used by everyday citizens and how journalists around the world continue to face increased threats and violence.  

2010- WikiLeaks

While the international nonprofit organization devoted to publishing classified media initially came on the scene in 2006, it was in 2010 that WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, brought to the forefront the question of whether publishing government documents can be justified by claims of freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. 

In April of that year, the platform posted a classified U.S. military video of a U.S. helicopter firing on what the military said “were believed to be armed fighters in New Baghdad, Iraq.” Among the 18 people killed in the attack were two Reuters journalists. Pfc. Chelsea Manning was arrested in May by the U.S. military and was charged with leaking the combat video, “as well as classified State Department documents by downloading those documents to a personal computer.” 

In July, WikiLeaks published what it called “The Afghan War Logs,” which included more than 75,000 documents that revealed previously undisclosed civilian casualties caused by the U.S. and its coalition forces, details of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and accounts of increased violent action by the Taliban. 

In the years since, WikiLeaks has continued to publish previously classified material from national governments around the world and, in 2016, gained increased scrutiny following its publishing of nearly 20,000 emails and 8,000 attachments from leaders of the U.S. Democratic National Committee. 

Assange was eventually arrested in 2019 after seeking refuge for years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. That year, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment dating back to March 6, 2018 that charged Assange with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.”

2011- Social Media in the Arab Spring

In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest the arbitrary seizing of his vegetable stand by police over failure to obtain a permit. The action sparked a pro-democracy movement that spread throughout the Middle East in 2011. The new tools offered through social media allowed demonstrators to become citizen journalists and tell their stories to the world on a scale that had never been done before. 

The “Arab Spring” also became known to some analysts as the “Facebook and Twitter Revolution.” According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, communities formed online were crucial in organizing a core group of activists, especially in Egypt. Additionally, a 2012 report by the United States Institute of Peace found that in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, social media played an integral role in “communicating to the rest of the world what was happening on the ground during the uprisings.” 

In addition to the role social media played in mobilizing protestors and providing news on the events to those outside the region, this new technology has also changed how people in the Middle East receive their information. The 2012 Pew study found that smaller news outlets in the region are now competing with the rise in user-generated content on social media platforms. Newspapers and radio programs have moved online in order to cater to readers who are increasingly turning to the internet for information. 

2012- The Kidnapping of Austin Tice

The Syrian Civil War that began in 2011 quickly produced profound impacts on those reporting on the conflict within the country and the surrounding region, displayed notably in the 2012 disappearance of U.S. journalist Austin Tice. 

In late August, The Washington Post reported that Tice, a freelance journalist who contributed stories on the civil war to The Post, McClatchy Newspapers and other publications, had been taken into Syrian government custody after weeks of speculation on his whereabouts. 

Video footage of the journalist emerged in late September on a Facebook page associated with supporters of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The video showed Tice being held by a group of masked men holding assault rifles before being pushed to his knees and filmed speaking a prayer in Arabic. According to reporting from The Post, Tice then cried out “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus” in English, before going back to Arabic, seconds before the footage was cut.

While the video initially appeared as though Tice was being held by Islamist militants, various journalists at the time questioned the authenticity of the video. The New York Times Editorial Board wrote that this was partly due to the fact that the captors in the video, “did not behave as militants usually do.” 

To this day, Tice is reportedly still in Syrian custody. Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, have said that they are convinced he is alive and have worked for his release, traveling several times to Lebanon, putting pressure on diplomats and organizing events to keep Tice’s disappearance in the public eye. The F.B.I. has offered a $1 million reward for information that could lead to Tice’s return to the U.S. Major organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the National Press Club continue to campaign for Tice’s release. 

2013- The Abduction of Journalists in Syria

As international coverage on the ongoing conflict in Syria increased, journalists continued to face threats to their work and their lives. According to reporting from The New York Times, 2013 saw a sharp increase in the abduction of journalists inside Syria, “making the country one of the most hostile conflict zones for news gatherers in recent memory.” 

Foreign journalists increasingly became targets, especially Europeans who entered Syria to cover the conflict without the permission of the Syrian government. Some journalists appeared to have been taken by armed insurgent extremist groups and criminal networks seeking ransom in cash or weapons, while others had no declared motive.

One of the journalists abducted in 2013 was Jonathan Alpeyrie, a French-American photojournalist for the Polaris agency. Islamist fighters took Alpeyrie near Damascus in April and released him nearly three months later after a $450,000 ransom was paid on his behalf. 

“The rebels are so desperate they don’t care about their reputation abroad,” Alpeyrie said in an interview published by the Paris-based Journal de la Photographie. “They see guys like us as an opportunity.”

2014- The Kidnapping and Murders of American Journalists Abroad

The U.S. and other western countries were again made aware of the dangers journalists face when reporting abroad with the 2014 killings of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Luke Somers. 

Foley, who disappeared in November 2012 along the Syrian border with Turkey, appeared in a video posted on YouTube by ISIS in which he pleads for his life before being beheaded by one of his captors. 

A month later, a video showing the beheading of Sotloff was posted online by the Islamic State as a “second message to America” to halt airstrikes in Iraq. According to CNN, a masked ISIS figure appeared in the video and spoke directly to U.S. President Barack Obama, saying, “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.” 

In December, a U.S. mission in southern Yemen failed to rescue Somers, an American photojournalist, who was being held hostage by Al Qaeda. The hostages killed Somers, along with a South African teacher also being held, when the captors realized a rescue mission was underway. The operation was the second attempt by U.S. forces to rescue Somers. 

Following these murders, Joel Simon, head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called on the U.S. to change its ransom policy, “because these journalists are going out on their own to bear witness on behalf of their audiences.” 

2015- The Charlie Hebdo Attack

While the 2012-2014 kidnapping and murders of international journalists provided alarming indications of the state of press freedom across the world, the 2015 attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo revealed that these dangers extend beyond the Middle East. 

The magazine had received criticism for its portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in controversial cartoons dating back to 2006, with French President Jacques Chirac calling the decision to publish the images an “overt provocation.” After the magazine published another caricature of the prophet in 2011, its offices were destroyed in a gasoline bomb attack

On the morning of January 7, 2015, gunmen forced their way into the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and, according to CNN, allegedly claimed they were avenging the Prophet Mohammed and shouted “Allahu akbar,” which translates to “God is great.” 

Twelve people were killed in the raids on the office, including eight Charlie Hebdo employees. 

Following the attacks, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” began appearing on signs held by Parisians during vigils for the victims, eventually spreading on social media as a rallying cry in support of press freedom and freedom of expression. 

2016- “Fake News”

While widely known as a popular phrase used by President Donald Trump to describe American media outlets, “fake news” better describes the flood of fabricated stories published throughout 2016, whichshowed how misinformation and propaganda became alarmingly easy to spread on social media platforms, especially when perpetrated by foriegn governments such as Russia. 

One of these stories was published by a site called WTOE 5 News and falsely reported that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump in the presidential campaign. While the Pope later refuted the claim, arguing that he never comments on electoral campaigns, the story had secured 960,000 Facebook engagements, according to Buzzfeed

Another article published by The Political Insider in August 2016 claimed that WikiLeaks founder Assange stated that “Hillary Clinton and her State Department were actively arming Islamic jihadists, which includes ISIS…” According to CNBC, Assange had actually said that the Clinton-led State Department had approved weapon shipments to Libya during the 2011 intervention, and that those weapons had later ended up in the hands of jihadists. 

A report from Buzzfeed revealed that in the three months leading up to the 2016 election, fake news stories such as these had gained nearly two million Facebook engagements. An investigation traced some of these stories back to a small town in Macedonia called Veles, where more than 140 fake news sites are based.

2017- #MeToo Spreads Across the World

In the weeks following the New York Times publishing of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo Movement spread across social media globally as people shared their experiences with sexual assault or harassment. The hashtag was first posted on October 15 by American actress Alyssa Milano and by the end of that day, people in 85 countries had shared similar hashtags in languages including Arabic, Farsi, French, Hindi and Spanish.. 

The use of the hashtag across social media revealed the prevalence of discrimination across industries and allowed millions of people across the world to join the conversation. 

The movement also brought increased scrutiny to the journalism industry itself. As reported by MediaFile in 2018, journalists in Brazil started the hashtag “#DeixaElaTrabalhar (#LetHerDoHerJob)” following several instances of harassment against female reporters. Additionally, more than 30 Russian news outlets announced their plans to boycott the State Duma–the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia–in response to the exoneration of a lawmaker who had been accused by several journalists of sexual harassment.

2018- The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

In the last few months of 2018, the world watched as details slowly emerged surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Khashoggi, who had written several stories critiquing Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork from Saudi Arabia that would allow him to marry his fiancée. Early reports from the Turkish government claimed that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. 

Although the CIA eventually found that Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder, various world leaders and press freedom advocates across the globe expressed deep concern after U.S. President Donald Trump revealed he would not be taking strong action against Saudi Arabia. 

In his last column written for The Post before his disappearance, Khashoggi called for more opportunities for those from Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region to share their stories. 

“The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events,” he wrote. “More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices.” 

2019- Press Freedom Continues to Experience a Global Decline

While the 2010s gave the world new and diverse sources of information in the digital media age, the decade also showed that the overall state of press freedom and the safety of journalists worldwide is facing greater threats than ever before. 

A June 2019 report from Freedom House argued that global press freedom has experienced a sharp decline over the past 10 years. 

The report, titled “Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral,” measured press freedom in law and practice based on standards set in the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to direct attacks against journalists, including state-sanctioned violence and imprisonment, the report found that world leaders, specifically those running some of the world’s most prominent democracies, have been using their power to alter public opinion and undermine the role of critical media outlets.

The arrests of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar and the violence faced by journalists covering the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, as well as the verbal attacks made against the press from world leaders in the U.S., China, Hungary and other countries across the globe, all represent direct threats to journalists and their work.

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