WASHINGTON — With violence and threats against journalists increasing worldwide, senators on Wednesday heard from pro-democracy advocates who called for increased U.S. government efforts to combat efforts by foreign nations to threaten or kill political dissenters.
Just hours before Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, pro-democracy non-profit Freedom House released a report that found at least 26 nations — including China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia — targeted journalists abroad with “transnational repression” between 2014 and 2023.
During the hearing, Michael Abramowitz — president of Freedom House — said findings from the report are likely just “the tip of the iceberg.”
“As a space for free media and dissent has closed in authoritarian countries, governments are increasingly reaching outward to target exiled journalists who continue to do their vital work from abroad,” he said.
Abramowitz echoed the report on Wednesday, calling for increased legal and operational support from governments for victims of harassment across borders.
He recommends that Congress passes the Transnational Repression Policy Act, which he added could make it easier for U.S. government officials to hold perpetrators accountable. The legislation was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators in March, including committee Chair Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, transnational repression refers to when governments use methods like violence and threats to silence dissenters living abroad.
But, further legislation to address violence against political dissenters is needed, Abramowitz added.
Congress, he said, should also establish a clearer path for exiled human rights defenders to receive permanent legal status in the U.S.
“Democratic governments should consider appropriate mechanisms, including providing special visas, such as humanitarian visas or visas for human rights defenders (and) activists journalists, to help them receive legal status,” Abramowitz said.
Political dissenters, however, are not the only ones facing serious threats from countries engaging in transnational repression.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, an international lawyer representing jailed pro-democracy advocate and media mogul Jimmy Lai, said she has received threats of violence online aimed at preventing her from doing her job. Much of this harassment has been openly misogynistic and sexist, she said.
“They come thick and fast on key days for the case,” Gallagher said of threats by the Chinese government. “I woke up this morning to 17 different rape and death threats on a day when I’m giving evidence before this committee.”
Lai was arrested by the Hong Kong Police in 2020 on “foreign collusion” and fraud charges. He founded multiple media operations in Hong Kong, including the Apple Daily, which was an independent newspaper supportive of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Lai — a British citizen since 1996 — now awaits trial later this month and faces a potential life sentence for allegedly violating Hong Kong’s national security law. Critics say the law invites abuse toward those critical of China and Hong Kong’s governments, including journalists. The U.S. State Department has condemned Lai’s arrest and efforts to dismantle press freedom in Hong Kong.
The new Freedom House report also found that family members of political dissenters targetted by governments can also be at risk. Gallagher said this has been the case for Lai’s son, Sebastien, who has received extensive threats from China’s state media.
Senators from both sides of the aisle agreed with the need for reform, with Cardin announcing that he will be introducing the International Freedom Protection Act in “the coming days.” He did not expand further on specifics of the legislation, but said it would address the use of the transnational repression by “autocratic and illiberal states.”
“The suppression is not only felt by the direct victims of the agents of these regimes. By going after one or two critics, they send a message to the entire exiled community: ‘You’re never safe anywhere. Not even if you are in a democratic nation,’” Cardin said. “That’s what makes transnational repression so chilly. It forces many to stop speaking out or end their activism altogether.”