Ten Ways To Shut Down A Free Press


Governments and other organisations across the world are perfecting techniques to prevent journalists from shining a light on corruption and human rights abuses. From trumped-up charges to murder, here are 10 ways journalists are repressed and prevented from reporting freely and fairly in the 21st century.

Physical attacks

In Syria, Turkmenistan and Somalia, governments, military forces and armed groups attack and even kill journalists who are seen to be critical of their policies and practices.

Last November, Palestinian cameramen Hussam Salameh and journalist Mahmoud al-Koumi, from the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, were killed by a targeted Israeli missile strike on their car in Gaza City. Amnesty International found no evidence that either was anything other than a civilian journalist, despite claims by military authorities in Israel that both were “Hamas operatives”.

In May 2012, 18-year-old citizen journalist Abd al-Ghani Ka'ake was fatally shot by a government sniper in Syria while filming a demonstration in Aleppo. Armed opposition groups have also attacked and killed journalists.

Abdihared Osman Aden, from Somalia, was shot dead by unidentified men while walking to work on 19 January 2013. He is one of at least 23 journalists killed in the country since 2011.

Threat of prison

Journalists also risk being charged under legislation that criminalises the peaceful expression of views, or with trumped-up, politically motivated charges (such as possession of drugs and fraud) to stop them from reporting.

In Iran, at least 18 journalists have been arrested since January 2013, accused of cooperating with "anti-revolutionary" media organisations outside Iran. Dozens of journalists and bloggers are now behind bars.

In February 2013, Abdiaziz Abdnur Ibrahim was sentenced to one-year imprisonment in Mogadishu, Somalia, for insulting a national institution after interviewing a woman who reported being raped by government forces. The case was quashed in March by the Supreme Court.


Many governments find that threatening journalists or their relatives is effective in silencing them. Relatives of the Voice of America reporter Negar Mohammadi, from Iran, have been banned from travelling. One of his relatives' passports was confiscated in February 2012.

In Yemen, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani has been under threat since early 2013 after he wrote articles about secret detention centres and torture by the First Armoured Division. Weapons were twice fired outside his home and he received anonymous phone calls asking him if he could hear the shooting.


In countries such as Cuba and China, activists and journalists find it particularly difficult to report on human rights issues because their communications can be monitored by state officials.

In March 2012, Cuban blogger and journalist Yoani Sánchez was unable to receive text messages or calls during the Pope’s visit to the country.

In China many people were sentenced to long prison terms in 2012 for posting blogs or sending information that was deemed sensitive.

Banning access to the internet

Some repressive regimes seek to control internet access in order to regulate journalists’ activities.

The authorities in China temporarily blocked access to the New York Times and Bloomberg websites and banned searches for "New York Times" after the news organisations exposed controversial financial details of some of China’s leaders.

Set up excessive libel laws

Libel laws in countries can be misused in an attempt to prevent journalists from criticising government officials and powerful individuals.

In East Timor Oscar Maria Salsinha and Raimundo Oki were accused of “slanderous denunciations” after publishing articles on a district prosecutor who allegedly received a bribe in a traffic accident case that occurred on 18 October 2011.

In August 2012, Islam Affifi, editor of Egyptian newspaper El-Dostor, was brought to trial for publishing false information “insulting the President”. The trial is continuing.

Removing visas and work permits

In Syria the government denies or removes visas from foreign journalists to stop them from investigating human rights abuses. National journalists face the loss of work permits. 

In 2011, Ayad Shabi’s permit was revoked in Syria after he failed to comply with official guidelines provided by the Ministry of Information on how to report on the protests.

In May 2012, Al Jazeera English closed its Beijing bureau in China after the authorities refused to renew the visa of Melissa Chan, whose stories included reports on secret jails and forced abortions.

Failure to investigate attacks against journalists

By failing to bring to justice those responsible for attacks against journalists, governments send the message that preventing reporting on what they see as sensitive issues is permitted.

One of the individuals accused of torturing journalist Nazeeha Saeed after she was arrested in Bahrain in 2011 was acquitted, despite forensic evidence of her torture. Nazeeha was detained and tortured after speaking out about the killing of a protester she witnessed at the Pearl Roundabout.

No one has been brought to justice in Pakistan for the May 2011 abduction and killing of Saleem Shahzad. Just two days before his death Shahzad published a story on alleged al Qaeda infiltration of the military, one of the most sensitive and taboo topics in the country.

Shutting down media outlets

Newspapers and radio stations critical of governments are often targeted and shut down.

In the first two months of 2012, the authorities in Sudan suspended three newspapers using laws that allow them to ban any publication containing information considered a threat to national security.

Last September, The Standard and Daily News newspapers in Gambia were forced to close, after plain-clothed men suspected to be intelligence officers entered their offices and ordered them to suspend all activities.

Promote smear attacks

In many countries governments promote smear attacks against journalists critical of the authorities.

In Sri Lanka a state-sanctioned smear attack forced Gnanasiri Kottegoda to flee his home in 2012 and go into exile as his safety was compromised.

Venezuelan Rayma Suprani has been receiving threats and insults via text message and social media sites. She thinks this is a coordinated attack due to her work as a political cartoonist and journalist.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.