Speaking out
Turkish journalists cover their mouths with gags to protest the trial of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul outside the courthouse in Istanbul on April 1, 2016.

Journalists need new skills to be effective watchdogs for the public and ward off shackles on press freedom

Journalists everywhere need to wake up to the new normal: states all around the world are using anti-terrorism, state security and other laws to constrain, harass or lock up questioning journalists. They need to up their game in response.

That message has been voiced by, among others, Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera journalist imprisoned for a year in Egypt on spurious terrorism charges. Greste and his two jailed colleagues were freed thanks to international pressures and a massive social media campaign under the hashtag #FreeAJStaff. But he argues that U.S. President George W. Bush’s Manichean doctrine that “you are with us or with the terrorists” removed at a stroke the neutral ground which journalists need to do their work.

The extent and violence of the intrusion into the media’s freedom to report varies from state to state, but the same pattern can be seen almost everywhere. The chilling effect on open debate and civil society has been dramatic.

Egypt’s harsh repression of inquiring journalism makes it impossible, for example, to get to the truth behind the abduction and murder in Cairo this year of the Italian civil rights researcher Giulio Regeni, who the authorities claim was killed by a criminal gang but whose torture and death seem to bear the brutal hallmarks of the work of Egypt’s security forces.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has openly trashed his country’s commitments to press freedom by exerting personal pressure on media owners to sack critical journalists, while presiding over the widespread misuse of anti-terrorism laws to criminalize their work and prosecute them. The recent jail sentences given to two top editors of Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, over their exposure of a suspected arms shipment to Islamists in Syria, is one example of Turkey’s open defiance of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

IN COMPARISON, RECENT COMPLAINTS in Japan about threats to press freedom, including the abrupt sacking of three inquisitorial TV presenters, may appear trivial. But the sweeping language and arbitrary powers contained in the recent special secrets law, and the public acknowledgement by the NHK chairman, Katsuto Momii, of governmental influence on editorial decisions at the national broadcaster, have worrying parallels with moves that have led towards the stifling of press freedom in Turkey, Russia and other places.

Journalists in regions of the highest risk have shown resourcefulness in fighting back. Colombian journalists, working with state authorities, have developed an emergency protection mechanism that has saved hundreds of lives. In Pakistan, where 120 journalists were killed in the past 15 years, editors recently agreed to put aside their old divisions, and are now cooperating to denounce and investigate all serious threats and attacks against media workers. The level of attacks appears to have subsequently eased.

In the UK, meanwhile, national newspaper editors jointly confronted the government to demand stronger legal protections for confidential journalistic sources after revelations of widespread police snooping on journalists’ telephone records.

Until now, many media houses have been strangely reluctant to speak out about the worsening environment for their own profession. But this year the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) declared that in the face of the rise in violent attacks and states’ efforts to demean or demonize journalists’ work, the time has come to “get out and engage with others” and actively defend journalists who face danger because they expose repression, corruption and crime.

UN agencies, led by UNESCO and backed by enlightened governments and non-governmental organizations, have elevated the protection of free expression and journalists’ safety to matters of high priority, acknowledging the wider damage done to societies from judicial harassment, targeted surveillance, jailings, physical attacks and killings of journalists. Media houses and journalists are being encouraged to enact sustained strategies of their own to help turn the tide. But often the media are seen as behind the curve, slow to accept that they are no longer above the fray but a key part and often a target in a global battle for free speech and accountable government.

UNESCO’s monitoring shows that in the past 10 years more than 800 journalists have been killed, and in nine out of 10 cases the perpetrators have escaped justice. After years of tough diplomacy, the UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity, launched in 2012, has spawned a host of helpful projects in regions where journalists’ safety is most at threat, like Latin America, the Arab world and Pakistan. Landmark rulings in the human rights courts of Europe, the Americas and Africa have also held up the repressive actions of states to international censure.

THE INTERNATIONAL CONSORTIUM OF Investigative Journalists’ exposé of the Panama Papers and the StopFake website’s exposure of fake information about events in Ukraine are examples of smart journalistic cooperation.

Editors, media owners and journalists should pay attention to all this. They are in the frontline of challenging all forms of censorship and the attempt by states to control the information space.

To work effectively in the new hostile environment journalists need to develop new skills to protect their online and physical security, expose disinformation, and secure real benefits from the enhanced protections that are now enshrined in international law but often ignored. Last December’s International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists by representatives of international media convened by the International Press Institute and others also pointed to the need for journalists to understand international human rights standards and mechanisms, to equip them to investigate and report effectively on injustices in the name of the public’s right to know.

This is no time for journalists to look the other way or be cynical about what they do. Media silence only helps those who would perpetuate systematic abuses. Solidarity and the re-tooling of journalistic skills are needed for the press to report the stories the public most needs to know about. And that means saying “No” to the patronage of governments that would prefer a house-trained, docile media.

William Horsley is a former BBC Tokyo bureau chief and now international director of CFOM, the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield ( CFOM is a partner of UNESCO, the lead UN agency for the UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.