Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association


By William Horsley

The big guns of the world’s media have found themselves at fault. At UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on 5 February, 200 senior media managers, editors and journalists from around the world, whose everyday job is to hold others to account, publicly examined their own record in standing up for the safety of journalists and marked their own card: ‘must do better’.
The change of mood is marked and here’s why: almost four years since the launch of the United Nations’ ambitious Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, UNESCO’s figures show that more than one journalist is still being killed every week because of their work, and despite regular protests by specialist NGOs fewer than one in ten of journalists’ killings ever results in the killers being brought to justice by corrupt or sleepy national justice systems. Leading NGOs have put extraordinary efforts into supporting the Action Plan in practical ways, working closely with UNESCO and local journalists in problem countries. But the world has yet to see a global strategy or campaign by leading media houses to protect their own and to end impunity.

Some believe that a strange lack of collective responses by the media themselves is holding up the chances of reversing this trend. UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, opened the Paris conference by telling the assembled media chiefs: your role is to step up pressure on public authorities to end the scourge of impunity.

And the Paris meeting came close to breaking a long-standing taboo: exposing a culture of denial on the part of some owners and managers of news organisations about the root causes of a worldwide epidemic of deadly repression and intimidation directed at journalists, and the lack of a coherent and united response to it on the part of the major players in the news media.

Larry Kilman, secretary-general of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), acknowledged that a ‘historic reticence’ has held the media back from reporting about themselves; but in the face of the wave of violent attacks and state efforts to demean or demonise the work of journalists, he said the media had to ‘get out and engage with others’ – and to do more educating and defending of journalists whose lives are at risk because they expose repression, corruption and crime in the name of people’s right to know.

Is this a turning-point? Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera English journalist who spend a year in an Egyptian jail on spurious terrorism charges, pointed to the massive scale of the task to recover the ground already lost by the world’s free and independent media. The industry as a whole has so far failed, he said, to alert the general public to the danger to democracy from the misuse of state security and anti-terrorism laws to narrow down the space of what is deemed ‘acceptable speech’ in which independent journalism can operate.

Tapio Sadeoja, editor of Finland’s leading daily, Ilta-Sanomat, was even more direct: media executives should criticise themselves, he said, for not taking these life-and-death problems seriously. It was essential for the world’s media to honour all journalists who paid with their lives for trying to report the truth, and not only to report the deaths of western foreign correspondents killed in war zones. He called for more coverage in the media of the underlying issues and more campaigns to end impunity: ‘more muscle, more influence, and money talks’.

This ‘big tent’ meeting with many of the big beasts of global media also aired examples of successes that can be won when media owners and editors bury their rivalries – and for some their political affiliations – to stand together. In Pakistan, where 120 journalists have been killed since 2002 (and the killers apprehended in only two of all those cases), recently for the first time editors of all the main TV channels and newspapers have implemented a new agreement to unite through their own coverage to condemn all journalists’ murders and demand that the killers are found and punished every time.

In eastern Ukraine, it was claimed that joint action by a group of Ukrainian and Russian journalists has led to the freeing of up to ten journalists held for days or weeks by armed groups and sometimes mistreated in the conflict zone. Colombia’s joint media, NGO and government mechanism for protecting journalists and human rights defenders at high risk, and UNESCO’s intensive training programme teaching Tunisian police about respect for journalists’ right to report, are among the examples that show how, with goodwill and active cooperation, a safe and enabling environment for journalists can be brought closer.

The world has become a more hostile world for journalists. Even if media moguls and their editors on every continent agree to combine their efforts, speaker after speaker pointed out new and growing dangers to the business of newsgathering. Where in the past media editors deploying staff to hazardous areas worried mainly about the deadly risks to reporting teams of landmines and reporters caught in crossfire, today in whole regions of the globe they must face the real danger of arbitrary and targeted kidnappings of journalists, torture and ritual executions aired on the internet.

The days when a ‘Press’ sign guaranteed some measure of safety for journalists as neutral civilians in conflicts are over. Now many governments force media to take sides or face being silenced with violence. In Guatemala, where ‘super-powerful criminal groups’ born out of the military juntas of 40 years ago dominate the executive, legislative and judicial heights of the state, journalists and anyone who struggles for democratic rights must live in constant fear for their own lives and those of family members.

Journalists must also expect their communications to be monitored or stolen with ease unless they master smart technologies and follow elaborate security protocols. Cell phones falling into the wrong hands can endanger the lives of a journalist’s contacts and sources. Physical and cyber security are expensive, and large media employers almost everywhere are suffering from over-stretched resources for foreign deployments and investigative reporting. Business models based on advertising and sales are failing as whole populations have been seduced into thinking that what they find instantaneously by a google search of on Facebook is ‘the news’.

As major news media largely retreat from regions like Iraq-Syria that they consider too costly and dangerous to risk sending their own staff to, the task of informing the outside world about world-changing events falls increasingly to freelance journalists, stringers, unsupported local journalist and brave citizen reporters. Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, whose abduction and death was turned into a public spectacle by Isis in Syria, spoke in Paris of how alone she and her family had felt, the more so because James worked as a freelance without the institutional backing provided to staffers working for major news outfits. She called for industry action to ensure that freelancers working in conflict zones would be assured the same training, equipment and support as staff journalists.

Emma Beals, who covered the Syrian conflict repeatedly as a freelance, underlined the point. When poorly-paid and struggling freelancers are driven to cut corners on security equipment, drivers and insurance, that is when things can go wrong, she said. Emma accused commissioning media, when they fail to pay freelancers properly, of acting like companies that dump chemical waste in a town’s water supply and leave the town to clear up the mess.

Finally, there is a whole layer of difficulties – not addressed head-on at the meeting — about the direct and indirect control of vast and growing parts of the media industry by state and political interests and their surrogates. This category of media are often the most well-resourced, and by their nature they often act as mouthpieces for their paymasters. Restrictive governments everywhere defend this model as ‘responsible journalism’. But its goal, far from holding the powerful to account, is in many cases to suppress and supplant free and questioning media and to secure the information space for their master’s voice alone.

Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers, derided ‘responsible journalism’ as a cover for praising media that bow to pressure not to cover issues that embarrass governments. Too often, when journalists are killed, governments seek to excuse the crimes as unrelated to the journalist’s work or as the consequence of their own wrongdoing. The adversarial role of the media was essential to democracy, he said. And the media must make and win that argument.

The Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), as one of UNESCO’s partners on these issues, advocates that news media representatives as well as journalists’ associations should engage more fully and constructively with the inclusive goals and mechanisms outlined in the UN Action Plan. In the new hostile environment for inquiring journalism, editors and journalists require a new toolkit of knowledge, including a proper understanding of relevant international law and the obligations of states, that can equip them to operate in the new environment and to report adequately on complex and often hidden stories, including the root causes of the impunity that shields unlawful state behaviour and perpetuates cultures of impunity.

The urgent need for media to do more to hold government and judicial powers to account in the public’s name was spelled out in the London Statement by global media representatives which came out of the joint CFOM and BBC symposium of 2012 and which was presented to UNESCO.

Similar priorities appear in the International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists, ,
a global effort to promote a culture of safety within every part of the media industry recently produced under the aegis of the International Press Institute and other media and press freedom groups.

So what next? A group of senior figures at the Paris conference has been charged with drawing up plans for future coordinated actions among the media themselves, and for more effective collaboration with UN agencies, supportive governments and others. Expectations have been raised, and they must be fulfilled, for the sake of the right to report, and the public’s right to know.