The Press and Its Enemies: A Fresh Look

Ann Cooper interviewing Lithuanians at their first pro-independence demonstration, 1987.

Award-winning journalist Ann Cooper talks about what lands journalists in trouble today.


Ann Cooper is an award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent with more than 25 years of radio and print reporting experience. Her voice was well known to National Public Radio (NPR) listeners as NPR’s first Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous events of the final five years of Soviet communism. She has worked in Washington D.C., Johannesburg, New York, Cambridge, MA, and is currently a Professor Emerita at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work in South Africa resulted in a duPont-Columbia silver baton for excellence in broadcast journalism. She’s been to nearly 80 countries either as a journalist, or as a press-freedom advocate. She has been a U.S. State Department speaker on press freedom and journalism ethics in Turkey, Russia and Germany. Cooper was a Spring 2020 fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The information is derived from the Columbia Journalism School’s faculty page.

Ann Cooper. Photograph: personal archive.

Q: You have been very outspoken on the issue of security for journalists. What types of attacks against journalists are on the rise today?

Ann Cooper: There have always been physical and verbal threats to journalists. Those certainly continue. Journalists are killed and put in prison because of their work. Those are two of the most dire consequences. However, we also have new threats and new repressions. We are in a digital age now, and journalists get doxed, attacked digitally, threatened, and harassed online, female journalists in particular. That is a whole new category of harassment and threat that was not really in place, say, 20 years ago. 

Thanks to, perhaps, Vladimir Putin, we have also seen Russia and other countries start to use legal means to harass journalists. There has always been the issue of libel law: journalists being charged and often imprisoned for saying something that violated slander or libel law in a country. Now you have “the foreign agents” law in Russia. Putin used that very effectively in the last several months against both civic organizations and independent journalists. 

The journalists are not put in prison, but they are deemed legally “foreign agents,” because their media entity takes foreign funding. That subjects them to a whole series of requirements: they have to put a label at the top of their website, at the top of every story, and that label says, “This has been written by somebody who is considered a “foreign agent”.” 

One of the first independent media outlets affected was Meduza, which is based in Latvia but has reporters in Russia. The Russian government labeled Meduza “a foreign agent.” All of a sudden, Meduza’s Russian advertisers disappeared: they did not want to be advertising on a site that the Kremlin had basically designated as an enemy of Russia.

Q: If we compare the journalism field 20 years ago and now, apart from this whole new digital dimension, would you say that these legal mechanisms are also a completely new phenomenon? 

Ann Cooper: I would say that we began to see them used frequently about 20 years ago. Putin came to power in 2000. During his first year in office, he was using tax laws to go after Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of Media-Most, which ran NTV – a great TV channel and no friend of the government. Putin used the tax code very effectively to wrest control over NTV and the entire company, Media-Most, from Gusinsky. He went after Boris Berezovsky in much the same way. 

Putin was not the only person doing that: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Erdogan in Turkey are other examples. You now see other countries copying Russia’s legal language more frequently and using it against the media. 

The other thing is the use of terrorism charges against journalists. That dates to 9/11, when all these anti-terrorism laws were passed. Some leaders grabbed those laws and used them against media that they did not like in their counties.

Q; You mentioned the particular vulnerability of female journalists today. When we are speaking about women journalists, what threats add up? 

Ann Cooper: I do not really understand the reasons why female journalists are particularly vulnerable. I do not know whether the attackers feel like it is easier to go after them, or they just have nastier messages that they want to throw out there against women. Women were silent about it for a long time.

Ten-12 years or so ago, for the first time female journalists started talking about physical attacks, rape, sexual harassment used against them. I think this all began to come out after Lara Logan was attacked in Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011. As with the MeToo movement some years later, her speaking out about that publicly emboldened some other female journalists to speak out. 

When I was still at [the New York-based NGO Committee to Protect Journalists] CPJ, there was a case of Jineth Bedoya from Colombia. She was kidnapped and raped in the early 2000s, and she did speak out about it. Her case has been written about numerous times. It was highly unusual for a female journalist to come out so publicly. I am sure she has suffered a backlash and even more harassment for telling her story. But, thanks to the courage of people like Jineth Bedoya, other women were able to or felt empowered to speak out. 

When I was at Columbia Journalism School, we did a video with some of my colleagues, talking about the sorts of harassment they have suffered, including physical attacks on female journalists, but also discrimination in the office place. They not only described the things that had happened to them but gave advice. There is a clear message to journalism students or young journalists: you are in a profession that has some risks, so pay attention, know what can happen or know how to respond to it or how to avoid it.

Q: What topics get journalists in trouble today?

Ann Cooper: To some extent, it depends on what country you are talking about. In Mexico, they have just had several journalists killed already this year. Covering the drug cartels and their connections to officials and the police is extremely dangerous in Mexico. There are people who have completely stopped covering that issue, but there are also others who continue to try and who are still paying a huge price, sometimes with their lives, for doing that. 

But globally, I would say corruption – official corruption – is the biggest issue. There is now the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which works with investigative journalists in many countries. They are training journalists on how to uncover corruption stories, they are helping them fundraise and publicize the stories. 

Take Azerbaijan as an example: there are courageous independent journalists like Khadija Ismayilova, who have been uncovering corruption for years. It is very hard to publish anything in Azerbaijan at this point because of the repression of the government. But if you do an investigation, the OCCRP will publish it. How much gets actually seen in Azerbaijan? That is not so clear but at least the story does not die.

Q: Who are the worst enemies of the press today?

Ann Cooper: I hesitate to say, “These are the worst enemies,” because I will forget somebody. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists started an annual list of the ten worst enemies of the press sometime in the 1990s. It was unveiled every year on World Press Freedom Day in May. We continued doing it for several years. Yet, it became a little bit problematic: you say, “Ten worst enemies,” and then something happens the next year, and there are two more leaders who deserve to be on that list. If one continues doing that year after year, there is this issue: there are new enemies, but all the old enemies are still in place. 

CPJ eventually did away with that and broadened things out. Now, they report on the worst places to be a journalist. Year after year, Turkey and China have a lot of journalists in prison. I do not think those journalists in prison in Belarus are going to be out any time soon. [Belarus’ president Alexander] Lukashenko may become a long-term fixture on an enemies’ list. If you look at Russia, there are some people on the CPJ “imprisoned” list. Even though prison is not the main tool that Putin has used to repress the media, you and I, however, would certainly think that Putin deserves to be on the list of the enemies.

You have to look at all these different kinds of repression. We tend to think of the enemies of the press as national leaders – autocrats, dictators. Usually, that is who it is, but there is such a range of ways of threatening and repressing the media today that you want to make sure you are looking at everything and every possibility out there. 

In Russia, one thing that happened with the “foreign agents” designations this year was journalists leaving the country, going into exile. If they had not done that, what would have happened to them? Maybe they would be in prison. There are a bunch of journalists who have gone to Georgia. Latvia has Meduza and the Insider newsrooms. Roman Badanin is back at Stanford: he is not going home any time soon. So you could say they are not in jail but they are not in Russia anymore, either. And they cannot even go home without fear.

Q: You were working as a journalist yourself in a variety of countries. At the time, when you were a foreign reporter, what threats were there, and how is that different from what the situation is now for foreign reporters?

Ann Cooper: I worked in the last years of the Soviet Union. The assumption for foreign correspondents was that the worst thing they could do to us was throw us out of the country. Nick Daniloff was imprisoned for a few weeks and then thrown out of the country. I am sure it was a horrible experience for Nick, but I imagine he was pretty assured of what the ultimate outcome would be: he would not be physically harmed in the long term. But if you were a local journalist, of course, you were a member of the Communist Party, and you either followed the rules, or you lost your job, or could be considered a dissident and could go to prison or a prison camp. 

I think my colleagues who are foreign correspondents today talk about one difference being that for many years, foreign correspondents traveled the world, wrote about wars, conflicts, corruption, and many people were willing to talk to them. People believed that these stories needed to get out, that they had the potential to lead to change. That has died. My friend went to Chechnya and said: in the first war, Chechens were happy to tell their stories to foreign correspondents, they thought it was important to get the story out there. By the second war, they said, “Why should we talk to you? It won’t make any difference.” I think that has happened in a lot of places. 

Also, foreign correspondents talk about how you used to want to label yourself: you’d put “TV” or “Press” on the top of your vehicle, wear a bullet-proof vest that said “Press” on it – and that gave you a certain protection. A lot of journalists say that is gone now. A lot of journalists are attacked. We have seen that in America under Trump. Journalists who covered Trump rallies were sometimes physically assaulted. They were certainly verbally abused. 

I talked to a journalist in Lithuania the other day (which has great press freedom). On their Freedom Day, there was a big rally, it was against vaccinations and some other issues. It was a conservative rally, happening at the Lithuanian Parliament, where they give a Freedom Award every year. During the Freedom Award, the demonstrators were interrupting the speakers and then started attacking journalists. I do not believe any were physically attacked but they were verbally attacking them.  

A much more dire situation was in Georgia last July. An LGBTQ+ rally was planned, and the anti-LGBTQ+ people did come out: there were around 50 journalists who were assaulted there, some of them badly enough to have to go to a hospital. No recognition, you know of the journalist’s job to cover events like this. I think we are definitely seeing more of that happening.

Q: With all of this indeed happening all over the world, what can be done? What is there for the international community to do to protect journalists? 

Ann Cooper: I think there is a lot of debate about that right now amongst advocacy groups. They are not going to stop doing the most important thing that they do, which is to document abuses and publicize them. That is step one. You always have to have that research, you always have to be able to say: whoever is in charge of China at the moment is the enemy of the press because they have dozens of journalists in prison, more than any other country. You need that factual information to make the case. 

A difference today is, you could make that case and then often go to Western leaders, the EU, or other entities and present that information. They would bring up these cases, and that could make a difference. There is less of that happening, perhaps, from the side of the Western governments, and less responsiveness from the authoritarians. 

When the last Olympics happened in China in 2008, press freedom groups, human rights groups used that spotlight on China to try to spotlight the abuses. That was the time when there was some more responsiveness. I just do not hear about that happening right now. I certainly hear the groups calling out human rights records, freedom records. I just see the West doing less with that information. 

I think one result of this is human rights groups looking at what some of our new strategies are. Can we look at cases where journalists have successfully stood up, successfully fought repression? Are there lessons that can be applied in other countries? It is also important to keep journalists globally unified and let them know, “You are not alone.” 

It is important for journalists to know that the global journalism community is paying attention, documenting, speaking out, and looking at strategies that can give them more support and help them fight back against leaders who are particularly repressive. I think we are at a moment where over the next few years, I hope, we are going to start seeing some new strategies emerging. I do not think we are quite there yet.

This interview was conducted before the war in Ukraine erupted.