One of the few leading Chinese-language media outlets that was still criticising the Chinese government, Apple Daily is just the latest example of a newspaper that was deliberately “murdered” by means of often drawn-out but ultimately lethal judicial harassment or economic strangulation.
They include Vtime, a Russian online newspaper that closed earlier this month, Akhbar Al-Ayoum, a Moroccan daily that shut down in March, and two newspapers in Myanmar, 7 Day News and Eleven. The following non-exhaustive lists shows how newspapers in all parts of the world were “put to death” in a wide range of political circumstances.
“As well as murders of journalists, physical violence against them and violation of their rights, the methodical murder of newspapers has also become common,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The death of a newspaper in another country triggers less emotion than the death of a person so it often goes unnoticed by the international public. Someone not paying close attention may assume that the newspaper was the victim of mismanagement or declining public interest. But newspapers are often deliberately put to death with terrible consequences for the right to information.”
Apple Daily had to close because the Hong Kong government froze its assets, leaving it unable to pay its staff and suppliers. Economic asphyxiation of this kind is widely used to force newspapers to shut down. Morocco’s last independent Arabic-language daily, Akhbar Al Youm, which was launched in 2009 and which was critical of the government, was throttled slowly in this way. After its founder and editor, Taoufik Bouachrine, was jailed in 2018, it was deprived of all state-sector advertising and then it received none of the aid that the government provided to the media in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It finally stopped publishing in March 2021.
Egypt’s Tahrir News, an independent daily that had been publishing only an online version since 2015, was forced to close in May 2020 after the authorities deprived it of vital income by blocking access to its website for months without giving any reason.
Something similar happened in Cambodia. After publishing for 24 years, the English-language Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down in September 2017 by means of economic pressure in the form of an unprecedented tax demand. It had been at the forefront of the fight for independently reported news and information.
In Latin America, the Nicaraguan authorities managed to silence the 40-year-old El Nuevo Diario in September 2019. A critic of President Daniel Ortega’s government, the newspaper was especially critical in its coverage of the crackdown on anti-government protests in April 2018. The government responded by using its monopoly on imported newsprint and ink to deprive the paper of the supplies it needed to keep printing.
Judicial harassment and arbitrary, vaguely-worded legislation are also used to submit annoying newspapers to a lingering death. VTimes, an independent news website founded last year in Russia, decided to shut down on 12 June, a month after the justice ministry put it on the “foreign agents” list. The website was concerned about the possibility of criminal prosecutions. Tajikistan’s Akhbor news site took a similar decision last year as a result of being blacklisted and subjected to judicial harassment after publishing critical content on sensitive issues.
Similar policies killed the bimonthly Mutations in Burkina Faso. As a result of a libel suit, the paper and its editor were ordered to pay 17 million CFA francs (26,000 euros) in damages in 2018, an exorbitant sum beyond their reach. A demand for payment of several million euros in back taxes, based on a very selective application of tax legislation, forced one of Zambia’s most critical newspapers, The Post, to stop publishing in June 2016, just weeks before general elections that were crucial for the government.
Censorship pure and simple
In Myanmar, it was the February 2021 coup d’état that signed the death warrants for all of the country’s independent media outlets in the space of a few weeks, in their print versions at least. In March, the junta simply rescinded the licences of several daily newspapers such as 7 Day News and Eleven. The other independent newspapers such as Standard Time soon found themselves facing military censorship and newsprint shortages. Only propaganda newspapers are now available from Myanmar’s newsstands.
In Turkey, the abortive coup in July 2016 triggered a major purge and many newspapers were banned under the ensuing state of emergency. They included the dailies Zaman and Taraf, and the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, which were dissolved by decree in the summer of 2016 while many of their journalists were charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “endangering the integrity of the state,” and some were jailed.
Journalists at Népszabadság, a leading Hungarian newspaper founded during the uprising against the Soviet yoke 65 years ago, were subjected to another, very sudden form of closure in October 2016. Its owner, the Hungarian media group Mediaworks, denied them access to the building without any prior warning after deciding, in a matter of hours, to stop publishing because revenue was in free fall. Mediaworks was sold a few weeks later to a media group close to Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister.
To circumvent these various forms of harassment, some newspapers have managed to survive as news sites. After 75 years, Venezuela’s historic daily El Nacional was forced to stop producing a print issue in October 2015 but this outspoken critic of the current government has managed to keep providing independent news coverage online.
Azerbaijan’s last opposition newspaper, Azadlig, had to stop printing in September 2016 but is still reporting online. Moussa Aksar, the editor of L’Evénement, one of Niger’s leading dailies, has managed to keep it going online, while running a farm and selling cow’s and camel’s milk and mangoes. He stopped producing a print version in 2018 as a result of a fall in advertising revenue, and judicial harassment in connection with his coverage of alleged embezzlement by senior political and military officials.
Most of the countries and territories that have used these methods to silence independent newspapers are ranked low or very low in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which covers 180 countries. Hong Kong is ranked 80th, Zambia 115th, Nicaragua 121st, Morocco 136th, Myanmar 140th, Cambodia 144th, Venezuela 148th, Russia 150th, Turkey 153rd, Egypt 166th, Azerbaijan 167th, Tajikistan 162nd and China 177th. The exceptions are Burkina Faso and Niger, ranked 37th and 59th respectively.