Journalism under attack


“No story is worth the life of a journalist”.

This sentence increasingly guides newsrooms around the world. Reporters are banned by their editors from going into countries where the risks of murder and abduction are too high.

Special investigations into matters of public interest are dropped out of fear of violent reprisals.

Death has always been accepted as an inevitable professional risk but assignment editors feel today that the situation is going out of hand and that the usual safety precautions are no longer working.

Seasoned and battle-scarred journalists have been among the most recent dead on assignment.

Award-winning photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were killed in 2011 in Libya, Sunday Times star reporter Marie Colvin, who died in a bombardment in 2012 in Homs, Syria, had covered dozens of conflicts.

They had collected the most prestigious international prizes. They knew the risks and the tricks.

Their deaths were a wakeup call to all that the “game” was turning into a Russian roulette where experience, fortitude and judgment were no longer enough to survive through the war zones.

“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”, Colvin had reflected in a speech three months before her death.

In 2014, reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded by Islamic State, the video of their execution posted online.

And then, on 7 January 2015, terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, killing 12 people…


The right to know and the right to report

These gruesome videos and brutal attacks sent a chill throughout the profession.

Up until a few years ago, with a few exceptions like Algeria or Sierra Leone in the 1990s, journalists had been able to roam the battle scenes and venture into rebel-held territories where they were seen by combatants as useful conduits for spreading their message.

Now journalists are unwelcome in most war zones. Radical groups see them as spies or symbols of the West. In fact, they no longer need the press since they can rely on social media to directly send their messages to friends and foes.

International reporters have become expendable pawns on the chessboard of global propaganda.

To a large extent, the extremists and the terrorists have won. In many newsrooms the decision has been taken not to send anyone to areas of the world where roaming bands of jihadists, paramilitaries or narco-thugs man the checkpoints.

Freelancers are increasingly moving into the information void. Badly paid, lacking proper protection, they often take excessive risks to get the story. “Less support, greater danger”, warns Rob Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Local journalists are more and more at the heart of the world news gathering system and they have paid a hefty price.

In fact year in year out, from the drug wars of Mexico to the killing fields of Eastern Congo, 87 per cent of all journalists killed in the world belonged to local outlets.

Not having the option to leave except on the roads of exile, they can easily be located and targeted. In many countries wrecked by crime or communal conflicts death threats diffuse a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness.

The pressures are so tense that many journalists choose to retreat into self-censorship leaving the field of reporting to so-called citizen journalists who still dare to record and post the news on Internet, often at great personal risks

An increasing number of people killed doing “acts of journalism” are these “information doers”, as BBC World anchor Nik Gowing calls them, who act as “the new witnesses of acute real time-crisis”.

Murder, however, is not the only form of censorship. If journalists are abducted and killed by militants or criminals they are also under surveillance, censored and imprisoned by governments.

In late April CPJ released its 2015 list of the 10 most censored countries in the world, with Eritrea and North Korea at the top.

To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes harass, spy, threaten, and restrict access.

Jailing journalists remains a powerful tool of intimidation: in December 2014, 221 journalists were behind bars, with China and Iran topping the list of the largest jailers in the world.

These regimes also use the law and money to reward or punish media. They resort to punitive defamation or insult laws, they monitor and if deemed necessary they block Internet and social media.

In countries where the media are owned by huge conglomerates dependent on state contracts they convert their proprietors into proxy censors on behalf of the state.

“Erdogan seems to have realised that he no longer needs to resort to jailing journalists”, Turkish columnist Yavuz Baydar writes.

“Having the subservient media proprietor declare certain journalists persona non grata and obstruct their opportunities to find jobs is a much more efficient, cunning method of stifling the free press”.

Democratic countries are not totally innocent either. The United States and the European Union pride themselves as standard bearers of press freedom and they indeed top the international rankings.

But they have also been using counter-terrorism as an alibi to set up inquisitive and massive systems of surveillance which track leakers and threaten the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

The pressures on journalism are not a purely journalistic issue.

“At stake are not only journalists’ lives but also the public’s ability to know what’s going on around them”, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour writes in a preface of the CPJ’ annual report, Attacks on the Press 2015.

In fact the right and the capacity to report globally are being ruthlessly challenged, depriving citizens of the information of public interest they need in order to navigate in a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

“When Pakistan’s government suppresses coverage of its military and intelligence operations, when China censors reports about food safety, and when Syria completely blocks access to international reporters, they are not only censoring within their own national borders”, CPJ director Joel Simon warns in his recent book The New Censorship.

“They are censoring news and information critical to people in many parts of the world. Without adequate information, global citizens are essentially disempowered.”

World Press Freedom Day celebrates as much the citizens’ right to know as the journalists’ right to report.