The Top 5 Most Important but Under-Reported News Stories of 2022-2023,
as Selected by an International Jury
A Joint Endeavor of the News Enlightenment Initiative and Project Censored
June 19, 2023
Disinformation is global in scope and the influence of information networks crosses international boundaries. Therefore, the fight against censorship and agenda cutting—and efforts to promote information integrity—require new forms of cooperation across national borders.
With this in mind, the News Enlightenment Initiative and Project Censored are most grateful that twenty-seven media experts have joined together to form an international jury with the aim of identifying and bringing to wider public awareness transnational issues that cannot be adequately explained by conventional news reporting confined to national or local perspectives, and news topics that have received little to no coverage by state, public service, or corporate (so-called “mainstream”) media outlets. Of course, news neglect, agenda cutting, or outright censorship are implemented quite differently in distinct media systems. What may be reported in some markets or publics can be kept out of sight in others.
The endeavor is a joint effort by the News Enlightenment Initiative (Die Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung, established in 1997 and based in Germany) and Project Censored (established in 1976 and based in the United States), two well-respected news watch organizations with long histories of bringing to the public’s attention important news stories that have been neglected by establishment news media.
The inaugural list of the Top 5 neglected or “censored” international news topics is intended to stimulate further research and to improve public awareness on these crucial issues. Candidate topics for the 2022-2023 story list were originally nominated by members of the jury panel, who subsequently voted to determine this year’s Top 5 stories. Brief biographies of the illustrious members of the jury are included below.
The Top 5 stories of 2022-2023 draw attention to vital topics that have been marginalized, distorted, or altogether blockaded by establishment news organizations and/or major corporate media platforms around the globe. The first two stories on this year’s list—on the Pegasus Project and a report from Global Witness documenting a “deadly decade” for environmental activists— draw attention to active, ongoing campaigns against journalists, human rights activists, dissenting intellectuals, and land defenders around the world. In each case, the violation of fundamental human rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information continue in part because of lack of adequate news coverage of these topics.
The #3 story questions the growth of AI and its impact on laborers and ecosystems across the world. Although AI is certainly a hot topic in many media and networks, the working conditions of men and women who support its development and deployment often remain beyond the scrutiny of “mainstream” journalism.
Our jury reached a tie vote on the final two stories on this year’s Top 5 list. Thus our two fourth-place stories include important reports on the discovery of “forever chemicals” in rainwater and the global threat to human health that they pose, and a collection of reports documenting how an increasingly organized global anti-gender movement poses fundamental threats to gender equality and human rights everywhere.
Taken together, the News Enlightenment Initiative and Project Censored’s 2022-2023 Top 5 Stories indicate ongoing clashes between active efforts for improving the lives of many currently discriminated groups and repressive strategies to surveil, intimidate, and threaten these activists through intelligent spyware or well-financed counter-movements.
The Top 5 Most Important but Under-Reported
News Stories of 2022-2023
1. Pegasus Spyware Continues to Target Politicians, Journalists, and Activists Around the World
“Pegasus: 17 Journalists of 7 Countries File Complaint Against NSO in Paris, RSF Refers Case to UN,” The Wire, August 8, 2021.
“Pegasus Spyware Maker NSO Group Has Contracts in 12 EU Countries: Report,” NDTV (Press Trust of India), August 10, 2022.
Sean D. Kaster and Prescott C. Ensign, “Privatized Espionage: NSO Group Technologies and Its Pegasus Spyware,” Thunderbird International Business Review (Arizona State University) Vol. 65 No. 3 (May/June 2023, originally published online, December 1, 2022): 355-64.
Pegasus, the “world’s most powerful cyberweapon” (according to the New York Times), has been used by the governments of India, Mexico, more than a dozen EU countries (including Germany, France, and Poland), and other nations across the world to hack the mobile phones and other digital devices of journalists, human rights activists, dissenting intellectuals, political opposition leaders, terrorists, criminals, and others.
This advanced surveillance tool has the capability of infecting the mobile devices of targeted individuals, enabling operators to eavesdrop on conversations and to read encrypted messages in real time. The tool also provides access to mobile device users’ contacts, location tracking, passwords, and audio and video files.
The military-grade spyware makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ targets. For instance, it has been credited with assisting in the capture of Mexican drug baron Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”), averting terrorist attacks, and breaking up sex trafficking networks; but Pegasus has also been used to surveil leaders of opposition parties and so-called ‘anti-national’ enemies of the state. It is widely believed that Pegasus played a vital role in the tracking and assassination of the Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi.
The spyware was developed by NSO Technologies Group—which Niv Karmi, Shalev Hulio, and Omri Lavie founded in Israel in 2010—and sold by NSO to national and local governments over the last decade for both legal and illegal surveillance.
NSO’s contracts with multiple national governments and those government’s consequent spyware abuses were first made known in 2021 by the Pegasus Project, an international investigative journalism initiative comprising journalists representing seventeen media organizations, coordinated by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories. The Pegasus Project revealed a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers believed to belong to individuals identified as “people of interest” by NSO clients.
In November 2021, the New York Times and other outlets reported that the United States had blacklisted the NSO Group in an effort to “curb abuses in the global market for spyware.” But, in May 2023, the New York Times reported that, despite having banned NSO’s technology, the United States has continued to make use of it. NSO has spent more than one million USD in lobbying efforts to resume business-as-usual with the United States, Open Secrets reported.
In May 2023, press freedom organizations, human rights groups, and independent media began reporting on hacking of civil society victims in Armenia with NSO’s Pegasus spyware. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least five members of the press covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict had been targeted; Amnesty International reported that “more than 1,000 Azerbaijani numbers were selected for targeting by a Pegasus customer”; and In These Times reported that surveillance technology developed by NSO Group “is empowering antidemocratic governments” to track journalists and human rights activists across the globe. According to Dr. Paloma Mendoza Cortes, a Mexican national security investigator, “The greater the violence and insecurity become, the greater the business opportunities for these companies.”
Though a grave threat to liberal democracies and to dissidents in authoritarian states, Pegasus and related spyware have not received sustained coverage by global news media. This is especially true of developments since 2021, when the Pegasus Project first made the scope of spyware abuses public. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy maintains an important archive of original reports on Pegasus spyware and other NSO Group exploits.
2. Deadly Decade for Environmental Activists
Patrick Greenfield, “More Than 1,700 Environmental Activists Murdered in the Past Decade— Report,” The Guardian, September 28, 2022.
Stuti Mishra, “Over 1,700 Environmental Activists Murdered in 10 Years, Investigation Finds,” The Independent, September 29, 2022.
Matt McGrath, “Over 1,700 Environment Activists Killed in Decade— Report,” BBC, September 29, 2022.
Joseph Lee, “Every Two Days, a Land Defender Is Killed. Most Are Indigenous.” Grist, September 30, 2022.
Matt Alderton, “NGO Reports ‘Deadly Decade’ for Environmental Defenders,” TreeHugger, October 12, 2022.
Independent reporting in Fall 2022 revealed that, between 2012 and 2021, at least 1,733 environmental activists were killed—amounting, on average, to nearly one killing every two days across ten years. This figure, from the Global Witness study Decade of Defiance is “almost certainly an underestimate” because “conflict, restrictions on a free press and civil society, and lack of independent monitoring of attacks on defenders can lead to underreporting,” Global Witness noted.
Killing of environmental activists has been concentrated in the Global South, with 68 percent occurring in Latin America. Three-hundred-forty-two killings occurred in Brazil, 322 in Columbia, 154 in Mexico, 177 in Honduras, and 80 in Guatemala. Outside Latin America, the Philippines accounted for 270 killings and India accounted for 79.
Indigenous land defenders are disproportionately impacted. The Guardian reported that 39 percent of those killed were from Indigenous communities, despite that group constituting only five percent of the global population. In Brazil about a third of those killed were Indigenous or Afro, and in the Philippines that number was about forty percent. Additionally, 85 percent of the killings in Brazil occurred in the Amazon rainforest.
Grist’s report on the Global Witness study quoted Dinamam Tuxá of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups: “There has been an increase in the amount of conflict—socio and environmental conflict—in our lands,” Duxa told Grist. “It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”
Although most of these killings cannot be traced to a specific cause, the Independent explained that a “big proportion of these attacks” are associated with opposition to “mining and infrastructure, including large-scale agribusiness and hydroelectric dams.” In 2021 alone, 27 killings were linked to mining, 13 to hydropower, five to agribusiness, four to roads and infrastructure, and four to logging. In total, Global Witness documented 200 killings in 2021, down slightly from the 227 verified the previous year.
Threats to environmental activists are not limited to killings. Environmental activists also face beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) brought by companies, sexual violence, and surveillance. A separate April 2022 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, as reported by Grist, documented more than 3,800 attacks on human rights defenders—including not only killings and death threats, but also beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and lawsuits—between January 2015 and March 2021. Grist noted that many of these human rights defenders were “known in particular for defending their communities’ natural resources from mining, deforestation, water contamination, and other threats.”
Those who kill, injure, detain, or harass environmental activists often do so with impunity, due to insufficient or nonexistent criminal investigations, corruption, and intimidation. Nevertheless, the BBC reported that in Honduras a former energy executive was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the 2016 murder of activist Berta Cáceres. In 2021, the Escazú Agreement—the first human rights and environmental treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean—also went into effect. Mexico has ratified the agreement, but Brazil and Columbia have not.
3. Is “Ethical AI” an Empty Promise? The Growth of AI and Its Impact on Laborers and Ecosystems Across the World
Ana Valdivia, “Silicon Valley and the Environmental Costs of AI,” Political Economy Research Center, December 5, 2022.
Adrienne Williams, Milagros Miceli, and Timnit Gebru, “The Exploited Labor Behind Artificial Intelligence,” Noema (Berggruen Institute), October 13, 2022.
Kristoffer Tigue, “Society Can’t Slow Climate Change Without Reining in Big Tech, New Report Warns,” Inside Climate News, December 6, 2022.
Naomi Klein, “AI Machines Aren’t ‘Hallucinating’. But Their Makers Are,” The Guardian, May 8, 2023.
Deploying buzzwords such as “participation,” “safety,” and “inclusion” in support of ChatGPT, one of the leading developers of artificial intelligence (AI), OpenAI, is contributing to a larger charm offensive to promote “ethical AI.” But the tech industry’s “arms race” to implement AI requires massive computing and labor power that is far from ethical. The training of artificial neural networks on gigantic datasets of human knowledge is leading to enormous impacts on the environment and workers.
Proponents tout the climate benefits of AI, such as aiding conservation, resource management, modeling climate, and advancements in green technology. AI can also be used to analyze data on plant and animal populations and track changes over time; however, the use of AI in agriculture and forestry can lead to the loss of biodiversity due to land use changes and monoculture. AI data centers have large environmental footprints, consuming land, water, and massive amounts of energy that produce carbon emissions. AI’s computing infrastructure demands resource extraction of raw materials (iron, aluminum, fossil fuels, water, etc.) and minerals (lithium, silicon, cobalt, etc.).
Machines utilized by AI data centers have a limited lifespan, and as they become obsolete, they contribute to the growing amount of electronic waste (e-waste). E-waste is difficult to recycle and often ends up in landfills in lower-income regions of the world, where it can release toxic chemicals into the environment and damage the health of workers and communities. Additionally, AI intensifies the climate crisis by enhancing the spread of climate disinformation that inhibits climate action and boosts micro-targeted surveillance advertising that increases consumption. The undermining of a coherent response to the climate crisis is a very real threat of AI.
As reported in Noema, Big Tech’s AI rollout depends on “heavily surveilled gig workers like data labelers, delivery drivers and content moderators,” who are “experiencing a traumatic work environment with nonexistent or insufficient mental health support.” An additional source of labor exploitation is the extraction of human knowledge and intellectual property used to train AI. A lack of transparency means we don’t know the datasets that are being used.
As AI becomes more prevalent, ethical and governance issues are arising, such as who is responsible for the environmental impacts of AI and how to mitigate them. An ecojustice critique of AI entails understanding how the global energy and economic system is exploitative of the environment and laborers. Tech companies actively undermine government climate initiatives by lobbying against government regulation. Furthermore, many of the climate initiatives claimed by Big Tech are based on bogus carbon offset schemes and greenwashing. Clean energy projects that require lithium and cobalt are exacerbating extractivism. Discussions (and hype!) in the media lack a conversation about how AI cannot exist without multinational corporations depending on extractivism, sacrifice zones, and disposable populations. Tech companies behind AI treat people like machines, while externalizing the social and environmental costs to the public. The Political Economy Research Center notes, “There is no algorithm that can bring water back into the Chihuahua region, put out the fires that will overwhelm Europe next summer, or achieve net zero emissions.” But rather than be the “natural” course of business as usual, Naomi Klein reminds us that the environmental and human cost of AI “is not an inevitability. It’s a set of policy choices.”
=4. “Forever Chemicals” in Rainwater a Global Threat to Human Health
Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “Rainwater Is No Longer Safe to Drink Anywhere on Earth Due to ‘Forever Chemicals’ Linked to Cancer, Study Suggests,” Insider, August 13, 2022.
Environmental scientists have found hazardous levels of manufactured chemicals in rainwater, leading to the dramatic conclusion that rainwater is “no longer safe to drink anywhere on Earth,” according to an August 2022 report from Insider. Morgan McFall-Johnsen’s article reported results from a global study of four types of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), conducted by researchers from Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in Zurich. In an August 2022 report published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, scientists concluded that “in many areas inhabited by humans” PFAA contamination levels in rainwater, surface water, and soil “often greatly exceed” the strongest international guidelines for acceptable levels of perfluoroalkyl acids.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers compared levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in rainwater from around the world with the drinking water guidelines established by environmental agencies in the United States and Denmark, “which are the most stringent advisories known globally,” the researchers reported. Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, “rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink,” the lead author of the study, Ian Cousins, stated in a post on the Stockholm University website. Cousins drew even more dire conclusions in an August 2022 interview: “We have crossed a planetary boundary,” the researcher told Agence France-Presse. “We have made the planet inhospitable to human life… [N]othing is clean anymore.”
The perfluoroalkyl acids the researchers examined are known informally as “forever chemicals,” because they take a long time to break down, “allowing them to build up in people, animals, and environments,” Insider reported. Prior research has linked these chemicals to prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer and additional health risks, including developmental delays in children, decreased fertility in women and men, reduced vaccine efficacy, and high cholesterol.
In June 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued interim updated drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS. According to the agency, the updated advisory levels were “based on new science,” including findings that “some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.” As Insider reported, the EPA had previously set 70 parts per trillion as acceptable levels for PFOAs and PFOS in drinking water. In its June 2022 advisory, the EPA set interim guidelines to 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.
In December 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in response to growing “criticism and litigation” over alleged health and environmental impacts, the multinational conglomerate 3M will “stop making so-called forever chemicals and cease using them by the end of 2025.” As of June 2023, a number of US states—including California, Maine, New Mexico, Maryland, and Rhode Island—have brought or are bringing litigation against 3M and other companies for significant harm to residents and natural resources caused by “forever chemicals.” CNBC reported that the PFAS trial “could set the tone for future lawsuits.” In June 2023, three US-based chemical companies— DuPont, and two spin-off companies, Chemours and Corteva—reached a $1.18 billion deal to resolve complaints of polluting drinking water systems with potentially harmful “forever chemicals.”
The same month, researchers at University of California San Francisco published a study in the Annals of Global Health using internal industry documents to show that the companies responsible for “forever chemicals” have known for decades that these substances pose significant threats to human health and the environment.
=4. A Global Movement to Restrict the Rights of Women and LGBTQ+ Communities
Pamela Shifman, “A Global ‘Anti-gender’ Movement Is Coming for Our Democracy. Here’s How We Fight Back,” The Hill, May 1, 2023.
Damjan Denkovski, “Disrupting the Multilateral Order? The Impact of Anti-gender Actors on Multilateral Structures in Europe,” Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, 2022.
Neil Datta, “Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders Against Human Rights for Sexuality & Reproductive Health in Europe 2009-2018,” European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights, June 15, 2021.
Juliana Martínez, Ángela Duarte, María Juliana Rojas, “Manufacturing Moral Panic: Weaponizing Children to Undermine Gender Justice and Human Rights,” Elevate Children Funders Group and Global Philanthropy Project, March 24, 2021.
Around the world, gender equality and human rights are in significant danger. Political representatives, secular researchers, civil society organizations, conservative media outlets, and religious groups, are determined to establish a gender-restrictive world order. They accomplish this by supporting traditional gender roles, opposing progressive reproductive rights policies and laws and dismantling gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. This coordinated movement advocates that gender is purely biological and attempts to redefine gender norms are dangerous to social order and morality.
The movement has gained momentum in recent years and has been successful in rolling back or blocking progressive policies and laws in many countries. In Europe, several countries have restricted access to abortion and contraception, and have rolled back gender equality policies and laws related to domestic violence, pay equity, and parental leave. In Latin America, conservative and religious groups weaponized children in order to generate moral panic and gain support for limiting access to reproductive healthcare and opposing comprehensive sex education programs.
The movement’s impacts extend beyond specific laws and policies. The disinformation and rhetoric also create a climate of intolerance and discrimination against marginalized groups, particularly women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of color. In addition, it perpetuates outdated gender norms and prejudices, which can result in harassment, violence, and other negative social and economic outcomes.
This movement should not be viewed as a fringe phenomenon considering it has increasingly gained political and financial support from conservative and religious groups, and governments, with a significant amount of funding from rightwing US-based organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In this context, it is important to recognize that the struggle for gender equality and human rights is closely connected to broader struggles for social justice and democracy, and that these struggles are ongoing and interconnected at the global level.