The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide has risen to a new record high, with a total of 533 journalists imprisoned worldwide, according to the 2022 annual report by Reporters Without Borders. A figure that reflects, on the one hand, the precariousness of being able to exercise this profession safely, but also the need, more than ever, to continue denouncing the abuses and violence derived from political and financial power. Patricia Simón, who specialises in human rights journalism with a feminist approach, affirms that the persecution of journalists has become a true “thermometer that measures the persecution of freedoms and rights”. In this sense, she believes that the rise in imprisonment is a response to “the reactionary wave that is sweeping the world and that translates into the persecution of journalists by both states and economic entities, which accuse investigative journalists of having links with guerrillas or insurgencies. “Before, journalists were murdered more, and now they are imprisoned more, which, paradoxically, is good news,” she says, referring to a type of journalism that finds its raison d’être in denouncing corruption and defending human rights, and which survives by often having to coexist with precariousness, exile or persecution.
By Virginia Fernández and Dale Zaccaria
Patricia Simón stresses especially for this reason, the moral duty to continue to carry out investigative journalism. Even more so in countries where we can continue to do so without the risk of being murdered for doing so, and where we supposedly have a stronger judicial system. He also emphasises that Europe is currently producing high quality alternative journalism, capable of questioning its own biases, but that at the same time, we cannot forget that we are still confronted daily with a “multi-million dollar news machine” that also seeks to generate confrontation and break social cohesion in a citizenry that is potentially sensitive to “that discourse of hate” that has been so well established in public opinion in recent years. In search of the keys to a journalism that makes people reflect but also mobilises citizens, we wanted to ask her about the state of press freedom in the world, but also about more specific cases, such as those of the journalists Julian Assange and Pablo González, among others.
In relation to Julian Assange, do you think it would be possible to free him, or are they simply trying to maintain an indefinite judicial limbo, with the possibility that he could end up dying in prison?
I don’t know if he will be released, but it would be vitally important to free him. Firstly, because Assange’s freedom means the defence of democratic values and the right to information and freedom of the press, secondly because it is a recognition that we owe him, because thanks to him, everything we sensed about the illegal invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan, we know to a large extent what the United States and its allies, including Spain, did. And thirdly, it is the least we can do, bearing in mind that for us defending human rights does not mean any risk. To defend Assange is to defend the rest of the journalists who daily face persecution, imprisonment and murder in most countries of the world.
In Spain there has not been a very clear mobilisation of citizens to defend Assange’s release, unlike in other countries. Why do you think this is and what could we do to generate a greater mobilisation?
I understand that we have been subjected to many other struggles in Spain, among them the gagging law, but I do believe that we have to take advantage of the international context, firstly because the transfer to the United States could be imminent, and secondly because we have leaders such as Lula da Silva, where the importance of defending what Julian Assange represents has been put back on the international stage. Here I think we have not managed to understand what he stands for, I think also because of the degradation we live in Europe and especially in Spain of what freedom of the press means. We should strengthen the collaborators, activists and defenders to bring him back into the limelight.
Similarities or differences between the Assange case and the case of Pablo González?
I see the similarity in the lack of a transparent judicial process. It is in no way justifiable or legitimate for a person to be imprisoned for more than a year, without knowing the charges against him and the alleged evidence, and for him to be unable to defend himself legitimately in court. It also seems to me to be a symptom of the anti-democratic drift of a member of the European Union, such as Poland, and it seems to me that this also demonstrates that this can happen in the European Union without there being the capacity to prevent it, it also demonstrates the crisis that the European Union is going through, which cannot even defend transparent legal processes.
What is the role of the press today, in this technology context, where it is easier to spread fake news and where citizens have to be more careful when choosing their sources of information?
I don’t think we have ever had access to such high quality information. On the other hand, what we have never had in the history of humanity is a multi-million dollar disinformation machine, which is designed and works daily not only to disinform, but for something more dangerous, which is where the ultra-right and populism move, which is the discourse of “they are all the same, they all lie and there is no truth, no facts”. It is precisely these media, which are no longer just the websites we are all familiar with, but are above all television stations that continue to modulate public opinion and spend hours and hours generating the discourse of hate, breaking social cohesion, criminalising the poor and making them compete with each other. Like society, the media are very polarised, we have very diverse, democratic media and on the other hand we have media that are designed to hijack democracies through the ballot box and this is a global phenomenon.
What have been your references for journalism that denounces the violation of human rights?
My school was Colombian journalists. I grew up journalistically, with references that in the years of Uribism, on the one hand were local journalists who had to get funding for advertising on local radio stations, in isolated areas of the country, and with that money buy space on the radio to denounce the leaders of paramilitarism, the links with the mayors, even, many times, with the media itself, because they were very clear that their function, and why they had become journalists, was that. And that meant that if they weren’t doing that, they would have to do anything other than journalism. To bear in mind that if we become journalists to fulfil that function, especially in countries where it doesn’t cost us our lives, the least we can do is that the most visible, most powerful case, which involves the great actor or one of the great predators of the press, which is the United States, is a duty.
In what way could one exercise whistleblowing journalism with greater security? Would exile be an alternative, depending on the situation?
In Spain we have many refugee women colleagues who come from Afghanistan, for example, with the return of the Taliban, and what they tell you is that despite all the limitations they had before the return of the Taliban, fortunately, they could continue to practice journalism and be autonomous, so there is also a fundamental emancipating value for women in the practice of journalism. And we also have Daria, who is a Russian journalist, who went into exile from Russia more than a decade ago, who did not want to be complicit in Russia’s propaganda through its state organs, in which she worked, for example, because of the role that Russia played in the Syrian war. So, if you don’t denounce the violation of fundamental rights, especially in states like Russia or the United States, then there is no point in becoming a journalist.
It is very difficult to do serious investigative journalism, given the risks and threats that journalists have to face today, in which countries is it particularly difficult?
It is more complicated in countries where there is violence or conflict, where the judicial systems are not as developed. However, right now we have many very complex scenarios for the practice of journalism. We have Central America, where we have our colleagues from El Salvador, many of whom have had to go into exile, we have our colleagues from El Faro, precisely because they do investigative journalism and because of all the threats they face, and because the state itself, like Buquele, has created rules that seek to imprison them. We have the comrades from Nicaragua, who have been persecuted and imprisoned by Daniel Ortega’s regime, and most of them are in exile, and many of them have even been prevented from returning to their country when they have gone to get on a plane. In Mexico they are being killed directly, in any kind of coverage, with total impunity, because it is a country that is on the verge of being a failed state. So, in reality what we find is that the free exercise of journalism has become an exception in countries with more established democracies, and even so we find two threats, on the one hand restrictions by regulations such as the gagging law, which makes it very difficult to exercise journalism, but this does not only happen in Spain. Then there are media outlets owned by big business and the country’s great wealth that do not publish investigative journalism that exposes corruption and malpractice, and finally there is the precariousness that is also a threat to the free practice of journalism.
To join the support movement for Julian Assange in Spain and to be informed of other actions and mobilisation initiatives, you can follow the following Twitter accounts: @Spain4Assange and @AssangeTheatre.