The fight for democracy and free speech is a life and death struggle

2nd November 2022
Ten years ago, UNESCO proclaimed 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (IDEI). Yet new research in Sweden shows a significant deficit in journalists’ faith in the justice system when it comes to illegal cyber harassment, and in Ukraine the very foundations of democracy are under siege. At the front lines stand journalists, who must be protected.
Cilla Benkö Sveriges Radio
Cilla Benkö VD Sveriges Radio Foto: Mattias Ahlm/Sveriges Radio

This piece was originally published in Expressen and is republished with permission. 

By Cilla Benkö, Director General of Swedish Radio

At 5 a.m. on 24 February, Mariya Frey, the head of 24 regional stations at the Ukrainian public service broadcaster Suspline, got a dreaded phone call. Russia had invaded Ukraine. She had to rush her daughters to the car and flee westward from Kyiv. With her she had a bag of cash and ID documents that had been packed and ready for several years.

Prepared for the worst, her colleagues were able to quickly start up live broadcasts of the Russian invasion from various locations in Ukraine, and they have been able to continue uninterrupted since the start of the war.

This is incredibly important. The war in Ukraine has heavily impacted the population, and access to credible news reporting is ever more important. But the fight for democracy and free speech is a literal life and death struggle – so far this year, 10 journalists have been killed in Ukraine, UNESCO figures show. Worldwide, the corresponding figure is 74 so far in 2022, already significantly more than the 55 journalists who lost their lives in 2021, and the war in Ukraine is one of the reasons the number is on the rise, according to a new UNESCO report.

Journalists in conflict zones must be protected, just like civilians. But in many cases journalists have instead become targets in Russia’s full-scale invasion, while at the same time key media infrastructure has been attacked.

We must counteract violence and threats that silence individual journalists – and see to it that crimes targeting journalists are investigated, prosecuted and punished.

Since the start of the war, independent media have been banned and forced to shut down in Russia, while foreign correspondents have been denied visas and deported, social media have been blocked and state-controlled media have become tools of Kremlin propaganda.

Creating the conditions for free media and allowing journalists to report is a priority for all of us. In concrete terms, we must ensure access to the necessary reporting tools and protective gear in places like Ukraine. But we must also counteract violence and threats that silence individual journalists – and see to it that crimes targeting journalists are investigated, prosecuted and punished.

Unfortunately, this is not the case today. In the past ten years, an average of one journalist has been killed every four days, and nine of ten journalist murders have remained unsolved, according to UNESCO.

In Sweden, there is currently a bill proposing to increase the legal protection for journalists, expected to go into effect on 1 July 2023. The new law would be welcome, in particular in the light of an as-yet unpublished scientific article by Oscar Björkenfeldt, a doctoral student in forensic sociology at Lund University, which points out a significant deficit in journalists’ faith in the justice system when it comes to illegal cyber harassment*. More than half of the 3,000 journalists interviewed described their faith in the justice system as poor or fairly poor; their main concern was that these crimes are not prioritised and that the justice system lacks the technical expertise to investigate cyber crimes. Several of the journalists in the study pointed out that illegal cyber harassment has been normalised and is an everyday occurrence, in part due to the lack of legal support. This has a negative impact on journalism and freedom of speech, and leads to journalists choosing not to cover some issues, the report says.

Read more: Cilla Benkö: This is how public service media is strengthened (Insight)

Swedish police have become increasingly better at working with these issues; now the prosecutors need to catch up. It is important to create an awareness that freedom of speech is in fact being challenged in Sweden as well, despite our extensive and strong free media and speech laws.

But on a day like this, my thoughts are primarily with those who are currently putting their lives and freedom on the line to report at the front lines of democracy worldwide, from protests on the streets of Iran and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

I’m grateful for the work you are doing for all of our sakes.

My thoughts are also with all the journalists who have been silenced: imprisoned, censored and murdered worldwide.

I want you to know that we hear your silence.

Cilla Benkö

About the author

Cilla Benkö is the Director-General of Swedish Radio, and a board member of the Public Media Alliance.

Our thanks to Ms. Benkö for providing this report. It was originally published on Expressen.

*The study, which is a part of the ongoing research project Threats and hate towards journalists: consequences for free speech and democracy, which involves researchers from Lund University, Halmstad University and the University of Gothenburg, is based on a survey carried out in late 2020–early 2021. It was emailed to about 10,000 members of the Swedish Union of Journalists. Those members whose jobs do not incur a risk of vulnerability were asked not to participate. About 3,000 journalists responded to the survey.