Taisia Bekbulatova, Russia

Taisia Bekbulatova

In December 2021, I was declared a “foreign agent” by Russia’s justice ministry. I now have to declare this status on every post, even on Instagram selfies. I refuse to comply. As a result, I could face criminal charges in Russia at any moment.

After the Ukraine war began, I had to evacuate the editorial team of my news website, Holod, from Russia because even writing the word “war” became illegal, and sharing unapproved information risked up to 15 years in prison. It’s difficult for me to count how many laws we have broken in the past year.

Working in exile is challenging. Our correspondents are used to travelling across Russia to cover often dark stories that reveal the true life beyond Moscow. Now, getting such stories is increasingly difficult, but we still manage. Information blockades are like hunger; even if you can no longer prepare gourmet dishes, you must make bread because your audience needs it more than ever.

In April last year, our website, along with all independent media, was blocked by Russian authorities. We counter this by actively working on various platforms, including social media and email. But our audience remains hungry for information they can trust.

You can support Holod’s independent journalism about Russia here.

Abhinandan Sekhri, India

Abhinandan Sekhri

Being a journalist in India has consequences. Sometimes, those consequences are called “tax surveys”. Sometimes, journalism results in hours of confinement and questioning for the reporter involved. If you happen to do a report that shows the government in a poor light, expect one or all of the above.

You have to be highly motivated to stick it out. As if social media algorithms and the perils of ad-funded news were not enough, the ever-mutating and restrictive rules and policy changes mean you have to stay on your toes. If you are resolute enough to navigate the minefields, there are police complaints, fear of arrests, police notices and “surveys” – as we too found out.

Newslaundry was set up in 2012 with the motto “pay to keep news free”. Governments in India remain a significant source of advertising. Our basic pitch was a subscriber-funded model with no ads. It was novel at the time, but it’s not any more. Nor is bullying and intimidation by the powerful, although it’s now at peak persecution.

What is new, is the spike in instances of broadcast media cheering on the assaults on independent media, and usually buckling in complete obedience. Watching the biggest news media houses abandon democratic values and celebrate the annihilation of their sanctum is the story of the decade.

But there is always hope. A small but determined bunch of online news platforms remain committed to high-quality, independent journalism. Newslaundry is one among them.

You can support Newslaundry’s independent journalism here.

A journalist, China

Police officers patrol Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on World Press Freedom Day.

Press freedom in China has been in decline in recent years – even more so since the pandemic – which makes it increasingly difficult to produce in-depth and original reporting. As a reporter, I get physical reactions from the stress I feel when I notice I’m being followed or tailed by a car.

There are four main challenges:

First, journalists are often closely watched when reporting, particularly those working for western news organisations. Authorities expect them to report in a narrow, controlled way. Other than being followed, reporters on the ground might be given “help” in an an-offer-you-cannot-refuse style, in which authorities assist in sourcing contacts. But it’s hard not to wonder what impact they’re having on what the interviewees say.

Second, journalists working for western media publications are deemed to have their own agenda, with the intention of smearing China’s image. We once met an interviewee who called the police after learning we were doing vox pops for a western news outlet.

Third, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get interviews. Before the pandemic, we could pay an unscheduled visit to a government agency and be granted an interview, but now more and more public institutions and companies have adopted a rigorous interview-approving system. Many fear that a simple slip of the tongue could easily jeopardise their whole career.

Finally, it can be easy to suppress coverage of certain issues if they are deemed “sensitive”, but the definition of “sensitive” is becoming increasingly vague.

The space for independent journalism is shrinking rapidly in China because the average journalist’s courage and determination to continue reporting will amount to nothing if their personal safety cannot be guaranteed.

(Name withheld for security reasons)

Murat Bayram, Turkey

Murat Bayram

Last month, Kurds celebrated the 125th anniversary of the first Kurdish newspaper, but all these years later, there is still no Kurdish daily among the 2,000 papers published in Turkey. Though 20% of the population identify as Kurdish, the only publication is a weekly called Xwebun, whose editor-in-chief is in prison.

Why? The state considers the publication of Kurdish media an act of terrorism. Kurdish journalists struggle to get accreditation. In effect, they are gagged. It’s no wonder Turkey, where opposition journalists are also threatened, intimidated and jailed, has been relegated in today’s new global press freedom index of countries to 165th out of 180.

Similarly, only one of the 477 TV broadcasters in Turkey has a news programme in Kurdish: the state-owned TRT Kurdi. In other words, the only choice for those wanting to listen to a news bulletin on a TV in Turkey is the voice of the state.

In February 2022, 344 news links and news sites were banned. One of them was our news outlet, Botan International. We had discussed a video about the Kurds on the French TV channel France 24, and this was punished as “supporting terrorism”.

Six months ago, we partnered with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), to organise digital media workshops and seminars in the Kurdish language for the first time in Turkey’s history. Course textbooks are forbidden too, but we have made a book to accompany these workshops. Now we are continuing our work thanks to the European Endowment for Democracy, and have made our studio and newsroom free of charge for those wanting to produce news.

Gabriel Arana, US

Gabriel Arana

I am the editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer, a 69-year-old progressive, investigative outlet. In early April, the publication nearly went under after our nonprofit board voted to sack the entire staff and cease publication because we had run out of money. In a testament to how much our readers and the people of Texas love and value the free press, in just a few days the staff raised $350,000 to keep the doors open.

The million-dollar question is now: how do we make sure the Observer is here in another seven decades?

I’ve been working in legacy and digital media, at for-profit and nonprofit institutions, for 15 years. The main challenge we all face is keeping our outlets going since all our ad money went to Google and Facebook. I’ve seen higher-ups desperately try to reinvent the wheel. The editor at one publication I was at drained the coffers with corporate consultants. At another, two rich kids with no experience in journalism thought gamifying the newsroom would help, with a cowbell ring at 12 to announce the winner of the “best article of the day”. Yet another publication put all its chips on Facebook – and sank once the algorithm changed.

There’s no one answer, and no quick fix. Our readers stepped in to save the day for us, and they are key to our long-term survival. Nonprofits such as the Observer must nurture the communities that sustain us as if democracy depends on it – because it does.

You can support the Texas Observer’s independent journalism here

Dan Hayes, UK

Dan Hayes

Looking back it was the sausage sandwich story that did it. The moment I realised I wanted out. The BBC television presenter Louise Minchin had revealed she favoured marmalade rather than the more traditional ketchup or brown sauce with her breakfast butty. Unusual, sure. Worth a story? Hardly.

I remember seeing the stories popping up on Twitter and despairing at the state of local journalism. But it wasn’t long before I was asked to do the story for my paper. My heart sank.

My former managers at the Star in Sheffield weren’t to blame. They were working in an environment where the click was everything. Our competitors had pounced on the story and there was pressure to respond. But this kind of journalism is a race to the bottom.

When I joined the paper in 2018, people were still proud of the journalism we produced. But year upon year of relentless cuts have inevitably taken their toll. What was once a newsroom of more than 100 reporters had shrunk to just a few dozen five years ago. Now, there’s only a handful left.

Since I set up the Sheffield Tribune with Joshi Herrmann from the Manchester Mill in 2021, I haven’t done any stories about TV presenters’ unusual breakfast habits. Our subscription-based model means we can pursue the stories we think are important and not just what “does well online”.

Just two years later we’re only a few hundred members away from achieving sustainability. People told us a subscription model would never work for local journalism online. They were wrong.

You can support the Sheffield Tribune here

A journalist, Ethiopia

An Ethiopian newspaper vendor arranges a stone at his stall.

The free press has always been under threat in Ethiopia. Independent journalists like me are no strangers to intimidation, arrest and exile. This seems to have changed in 2018 when a new government led by Abiy Ahmed lifted media censorship. But it wasn’t long before media freedom deteriorated once again, reaching a new nadir during the Tigray war that lasted for close two to years.

The war that started in November 2020 has led to the arrest of 63 journalists and media workers, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). At the height of the war, when a state of emergency was declared, CPJ ranked Ethiopia as the second worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa next to its most repressive neighbour, Eritrea. In some cases, arrests were accompanied by the confiscation of equipment, sending shock waves through the industry and effectively curtailing independent reporting about the war.

The war is now over, with a peace agreement that restored hope for the country, but the attack on the press sustains. Independent journalists are still exposed to arbitrary arrests, forced disappearance and physical attacks, with no end in sight.

(Name withheld for security reasons)

Analy Nuño, Mexico

Analy Nuño

For years, Mexico has been ranked the deadliest country for the press, more than war-torn places such as Ukraine or Syria. Every day, we learn of attacks against colleagues in remote regions where they are paid $3 for a story and lack job security.

According to the freedom of expression group Article 19, a journalist in the country is attacked for their work every 14 hours. Perpetrators don’t just commit violence against journalists with impunity but sometimes with the complicity of the authorities. Censorship, threats, espionage, displacement, disappearance and murder are common and share the same objective: silencing the truth.

The normalisation of this growing violence is compounded by verbal attacks from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who repeatedly rails against the press when an article or investigation displeases him. This stokes a climate of hostility against the press and encourages social media attacks, which often publicise journalists’ photographs and personal information.

In response, journalists have organised networks such as Frontline Freelance México, a group that promotes self-care strategies, mutual support, training and accompaniment in dangerous areas. It is working on building an emergency fund to support reporters.

This type of network is essential to combat violence against journalists – and to make sure they can continue to report the essential information the public needs to know.

Sasha Pushkina, Belarus

Sasha Pushkina

Independent media from Belarus has been driven into exile. In May 2021, the news portal Tut.by was dismantled by the authorities and 15 people, including the editor-in-chief, Marina Zolotova, were detained. Today, four of them are on the terrorist list, and two have prison sentences of 12 years each.

Part of the team fled abroad and launched a new project – zerkalo.io. It is now blocked in Belarus, but still gets more than 3 million unique users a month in a country of 9 million.

Being a Belarusian journalist comes with great risks. And that extends to readers too. For any interaction with zerkalo.io, readers can get fined, be detained or even receive a prison sentence. For that reason, interviews with people from Belarus are anonymous. Authors are anonymous too because there is no other way to protect family in the country. Correspondents cannot go out into the streets of Belarus, be an eyewitness or directly request a comment from an official. The information comes from subscribers and is subject to rigorous factchecking. Zerkalo uses mirrors (replica websites) that are attacked daily. It has already changed domains 25 times.

But challenges will not stop Zerkalo from doing its work, because otherwise Belarusians will be left with nothing but propaganda. Thousands of political prisoners will be forgotten, repressions will become routine.

Belarussian media are looking for resources to do our job even in such conditions. Placing ads on zerkalo.io for the Belarusian advertiser is a direct way to lose business and a criminal term, so Zerkalo really needs support from readers.

One way to do this is with a small monthly subscription. Please help if you can.

You can support the independent journalism of zerkalo.io here