Do or let die – UN and journalists vow to fight global media safety crisis
October 19, 2012 Leave a comment
“If a coked-up twelve year old with a Kalashnikov steps out from behind a bush and points it at me, I can’t wave the Declaration of Human Rights at him and say ‘you can’t do that, I’m a journalist.’”
Al Jazeera English’s executive producer Dairmuid Jeffreys’ comment reflected what many journalists in the room felt.
Yesterday’s Journalism Safety Conference, organised by the BBC College of Journalism and Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) was marred in scepticism. Little wonder: the discussion was made to a room full of journalists.
Despite the cynicism, organisers of yesterday’s meeting said this presented a crucial opportunity for news organisations, journalists and the United Nations to work together to try to improve journalist safety.
“The media will have to use this chance or lose it,” wrote William Horsley the international director of CFOM in an article from September.
The meeting, attended by Guy Berger, UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, and top international media and NGO representatives, was called to approve a draft plan of action to improve the safety of journalists to be presented at a UN conference in Vienna on November 23.
A vast majority of the speakers and audience were field journalists from some of the most dangerous countries for media workers: Somalia, Brazil, Mexico and Pakistan to name a few. In these countries, impunity reigns where murder is the cheapest, easiest and most risk-free way to silence uncomfortable truths.
They brave some of the most dangerous places on earth with very little support. Usually, they face pressure from both the government and criminals. Many had been targeted just for doing their job. Many work and live in lawless areas, with little or no regard for human rights. Many can’t leave.
Hamid Mir, a well-known presenter for Geo News TV in Pakistan has been declared an “enemy of the state” by Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan after openly condemning the shooting of schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai last week. She had spoken out in support of education for women.
He addressed the audience, saying he and other colleagues had been receiving threatening text messages and phone calls.
“When I was boarding the flight from Pakistan to England, people were saying to me, ‘it’s good you’re leaving, this place is not a place to live,’” he said.
“I was embarrassed that people thought I was running away. I do not want to.”
Top investigative reporter Galina Sidorova of Russian monthly Sovershenno Secretno described how one of her colleagues had his fingers broken after he probed to far into an investigation. His hands were crushed so severely that he can no longer work as a journalist.
After a public outcry, journalists were offered extra protection from security police.
“The idea was rejected. How can we operate under that?” she asked.
Anabel Hernandez, an investigative reporter from Mexico, said that the raging drug wars has shut down, silenced and divided media outlets to such an extent that journalists no longer support each other.
“The media in Mexico sees repression as normal. We see it as part of the job,” she said.
“But we can’t do anything alone. Society is forgetting the importance of freedom of expression.”
The journalists took to the podium one by one, detailing vastly different plights but with a single concern: their safety while reporting.
But perhaps the most harrowing account was from a veteran war reporter who was unable to attend – The Sunday Times’ Jon Swain, colleague of slain reporter Marie Colvin, whose scathing email was read out to the audience.
“I try to always keep in my mind that someone will kill you, not because you’re a journalist but because you’re from another country and on the other side,” he wrote.
“In Cambodia, they [journalists] were not getting killed because they are journalists but because they are foreigners getting in the way. No UN mandate would have saved them.”
Swain was captured in East Timor in 1999 where his group was ambushed by Indonesian soldiers who that day had killed Financial Times journalist Sander Thoenes. He was taken away to be shot, but managed to escape with his photographer.
“It all seems very well intended but rather pompous,” he said of the report.
“No amount of pious words from the UN is going to protect journalists.”
The draft report says that by dovetailing the UN with national government, media houses and civil society organisations, more can be done to improve the safety of journalists. Ensuring that safety policies are set in the newsroom, and that attacks against journalists are aggressively publicised, would allow for on-the ground support in seriously affected places.
Berger said that the report focuses on action rather than good intentions – the latter being something the UN has frequently been accused of.
“It is a rallying opportunity that calls out that more is needed from the UN system, and that more is needed from government and state institutions, and more from NGOs,” he said.
“And finally, that more is needed from yourself in the media.”
“Your profession and your industry falls short of its own noble ideals. So too with the UN systems. It would be self-defeating to give up on striving for the ideals and to ignore the way that this quest elicits sincere actions on the part of many, many people.”
The UN conference in Vienna has been organised to carry the inter-agency action forward. It will take place on the third anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre in the Philippines which claimed the lives of 32 media workers.
The stories head yesterday were stark reminder that such a report, which was approved by the attendees despite their scepticism, is long overdue. But the harrowing and heartfelt stories were also a reminder that reports from an organisation that was yesterday called ‘toothless’ are no good without tangible action.
But yesterday’s approval of the draft, despite the cynicism, showed that the media were no longer prepared to ignore the deteriorating safety situation.
“Either the world’s major news organisations speak out now to insist on better protection for journalists or they may find the moment has passed. In that case the enemies of free speech and real journalism will think they have won,” said Horsley.
Such sentiments were echoed by Berger.
“It would be missing a trick if media people responded to the UN plan by being cynical and writing off this new initiative as empty rhetoric. To be cynical is to know the answers in advance, which of course is not exactly best practice in journalism. To be skeptical, however, is to ask questions,” he said.
“Believe me, it’s not easy to take the various supertankers of the UN and get them involved, and link them up with all the other actors in the business of securing the safety of journalists, but it is happening.”
Helena Williams is responsible for News and Projects at INSI
Correction: This article was changed on 22/1o/12 to correct the date of William Horsley’s article.