Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has published a gallery of grim portraits, those of 37 heads of state or government who crack down massively on press freedom.
Some of these “predators of press freedom” have been operating for more than two decades while others have just joined the blacklist, which for the first time includes two women and a European predator.
Nearly half (17) of the predators are making their first appearance on the 2021 list, which RSF published five years after the last one, from 2016.
All are heads of state or government who trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them, when they don’t have blood on their hands because they have directly or indirectly pushed for journalists to be murdered.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said, “Each of these predators has their own style. Some impose a reign of terror by issuing irrational and paranoid orders. Others adopt a carefully constructed strategy based on draconian laws.”
Those named in the ‘gallery of predators’ are Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi of Egypt, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Ali Khamenei of Iran, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, Carrie Lam of Hong Kong, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Gurbanguly Berdymoukhammedov of Turkmenistan, Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Hun Sen of Cambodia, Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan, Imran Khan of Pakistan, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, Issaias Afwerki of Eritrea.
Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba, Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar, Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Narendra Modi of India, Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Prayut Chan-O-Cha of Thailand, Ramzan Kadyrov of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
Here are some notable ‘predators’ from Asia as per RSF:
Narendra Modi Prime Minister of India since 26 May 2014, Predator since taking office as India ranked 142nd/180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
PREDATORY METHOD: National-populism and disinformation
After becoming Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, he used this western state as a laboratory for the news and information control methods he deployed after being elected as India’s prime minister in 2014. His leading weapon is to flood the mainstream media with speeches and information tending to legitimise his national-populist ideology. To this end, he has developed close ties with billionaire businessmen who own vast media empires.
This insidious strategy works in two ways. On the one hand, by visibly ingratiating himself with the owners of leading media outlets, their journalists know they risk dismissal if they criticise the government.
On the other, prominent coverage of his extremely divisive and derogatory speeches, which often constitute disinformation, enables the media to achieve record audience levels. All that is left for Modi is to neutralise the media outlets and journalists that question his divisive methods.
For this, he has a judicial arsenal with provisions that pose a major threat to press freedom. For example, journalists risk the possibility of life imprisonment under the extremely vague charge of sedition.
To round off this arsenal, Modi can count on an army of online trolls known as “yodha” (the Hindi word for “warriors”), who wage appalling hate campaigns on social media against the journalists they don’t like, campaigns that almost routinely include calls for the journalists to be killed.
FAVOURITE TARGETS: “Sickulars” and “presstitutes”
Gauri Lankesh, a journalist gunned down outside her home in September 2017, is the best-known victim of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu nationalist movement that worships Modi.
As a rule, any journalists or media outlets that question the prime minister’s national-populist ideology are quickly branded as “sickular” – a portmanteau of “sick” and “secular” – and are targeted by “bhakt,” Modi devotees who bring lawsuits against them, defame them in the mainstream media and coordinate online attacks against them.
The attacks are even more virulent if the targets are women journalists, who are labelled as “presstitutes.” Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt, for example, were subjected to calls for them to be gang-raped and their personal data was posted online to facilitate attacks.
Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China since 14th March 2013. Predator since 2013 as China ranked 177th/180 in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index
PREDATORY METHOD: Void of restraint
Xi Jinping further tightened the regime’s grip on news and information, restoring, in just a few years, a media culture comparable with the Maoist era. By relying on the extensive use of new technology, Xi has imposed a social model based on censorship, propaganda and surveillance.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), an entity personally supervised by Xi, prevents China’s one billion internet users from freely receiving and imparting independent information. State media must not just follow the Party’s leadership, but must also “reflect the Party’s will, safeguard its authority and its unity”.
The smartphone application Study Xi, Power Country, mandatory since 2019 for journalists to download, does not only allow the regime to test their loyalty, but may also be used to apply surveillance over their phones.
Under Xi, the harassment of foreign correspondents and their sources has also reached new heights. While abroad, the regime goes to great lengths to promote and export its oppressive model.
FAVOURITE TARGETS: Those who stray from the narrative
Xi’s China is the world’s biggest captor of press freedom defenders with more than 115 detained in 2021, often in conditions that pose a threat to their lives.
Journalists whose reports don’t fit the regime’s narrative are often being held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), a euphemism for incommunicado detention at one of China’s “black jails” where detainees are deprived of their rights and face the risk of being tortured.
Kunchok Jinpa, a leading media source of information about Tibet, died in February 2021 as a result of mistreatment in prison, much like Liu Xiaobo, Nobel peace laureate and RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate, and Yang Tongyan, political commentator, who both died in 2017.
Sheikh Hasina Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh since 6 January 2009. Predator since 2014 as Bangladesh, 152nd/180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index
PREDATORY METHOD: The Digital Security Act, ultimate weapon for imposing self-censorship
The eldest child of Sheikh Mujib, Bangladesh’s independence hero, Sheikh Hasina has been a leading figure in Bangladeshi politics since the early 1980s. For years, she led the opposition to various authoritarian regimes that used violence to persecute journalists.
Then her party won the December 2008 parliamentary elections by a landslide, and she took office as prime minister the following month.
Thereafter, she became increasingly more authoritarian and ready to crack down on press freedom. The trend was confirmed in 2014 when her reelection was made all the easier by the fact that the opposition was denied access to the news media.
Although she claims to respect press freedom, her hold on power has been buttressed ever since by a refusal to tolerate any criticism.
The Digital Security Act (DSA) adopted in 2018 has rounded off the arsenal that her government uses to impose her views. Packed with deliberately vague wording, it is the ultimate weapon for getting journalists to censor themselves.
Online content “liable to disturb public order” is punishable by seven years in prison while “negative propaganda against (…) the Father of the Nation” – Sheikh Hasina’s own father – is punishable by 14 years in prison. In other words, vast, vaguely-defined areas have been rendered completely off limits.
FAVOURITE TARGETS: Reporters who annoy her
The Digital Security Act enables Hasina’s supporters to harass all journalists and bloggers who annoy the authorities.
In the first two years or so after it came into effect, it was used to prosecute around 400 individuals, including more than 70 journalists and bloggers. Those jailed under this law are subjected to such appalling conditions that one of them, Mushtaq Ahmed, died in prison in February 2021.
The supporters of Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, and its student branch, the Chhatra League, serve as her enforcers in the field, harassing and attacking reporters to prevent them from covering streets protests or any form of unrest, especially during elections, sometimes acting as virtual lynch mobs. Journalists often end up in hospital and, in some cases, in the morgue.
Carrie Lam Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China since 2017. Predator since 2019 as Hong Kong, 80th/180 in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index
PREDATORY METHOD: Stick, and draconian legislation
When Carrie Lam was appointed as Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, she quickly extended governmental press accreditation to online media outlets, giving the impression that she might help to improve press freedom.
But Lam soon showed her true colours as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s puppet and has since consistently tried to defend his indefensible censorship policies under the name of “patriotism.”
The draft amendment she introduced in 2019, allowing extradition to Mainland China, including the extradition of journalists of whom Beijing disapproved, triggered mass protests.
During those protests, journalists were subjected to physical violence by the police, violence that Lam kept refusing to recognise.
She went on to praise the National Security Law that Beijing imposed in June 2020 so that it could intervene directly in Hong Kong in order to arbitrarily punish what it regarded as “terrorism”, “secession”, “subversion”, and “foreign interference.” Punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty, these charges opened the way to arbitrary arrests of journalists.
FAVOURITE TARGETS: Public broadcasters, independent media outlets
Carrie Lam has relentlessly targeted symbols of press freedom in Hong Kong. By freezing the financial assets of Apple Daily, one of the few mainstream Chinese-language media outlets still openly critical of Beijing, she forced the newspaper to shut down in June 2021.
Lam also orchestrated the judicial harassment of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, a 2020 RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate, and former legislator and former journalist Claudia Mo, who were arrested in 2021 and charged under the National Security Law.
Lastly, Lam launched a full-blown intimidation campaign against public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), appointed a new director of broadcasting tasked with setting up an internal censorship system, and took editorial interference to the next level by imposing her own daily talk show, which was broadcast for a month from 28 April 2021.