Publicizing the Plight of Journalists

AMSTERDAM – Every five days, on average, somewhere in the world, a journalist is murdered for being a journalist. Nine out of ten times, no one is prosecuted, creating an atmosphere of impunity that extends beyond death threats or violence. Imprisonment of journalists is at an all-time high, and members of the press routinely suffer harassment and intimidation while on assignment. Today, journalism is one of the most dangerous professions anywhere.


One way to address this state of affairs is by talking about it. Three recent examples highlight the risks journalists take to report the news, and underscore why publicizing their plight is the only way to bring about change.

Consider Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler.com, an online news network based in the Philippines. Since founding Rappler in 2012, Ressa’s website has become an invaluable source of information about the extrajudicial killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” For her enterprising reporting, Ressa has received more than 80 death threats in the last month alone. Many of these warnings have come from anonymous bloggers, with IP addresses traceable to the president’s associates.

Then there is the case of William Ntege, a journalist who reported on recent protests against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to run in the next presidential election, despite constitutional prohibitions preventing him from doing so. Ntege was severely beaten by police for his coverage, and held in jail for more than ten days.

Finally, there is the erosion of press freedoms in Myanmar. A new clause written into the country’s media law allows citizens to file a lawsuit if they have a complaint with an article or news item, even if the reporting does not directly mention them. This legal provision – in sharp contrast to international norms – has led to 61 cases filed against journalists since February 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power.

Infringements of press freedom like these have become common tactics for autocratic regimes, from Turkey to Russia and beyond. But it is not only despots and strongmen who have declared war on the press. In Colombia and Mexico, hundreds of journalists have been placed under armed guard to protect them from criminal syndicates. Yet this hasn’t stopped journalists across Latin America from leaving the profession in droves. A favorite strategy of Mexican drug gangs seeking to stay out of the headlines is to threaten investigative journalists’ children. No wonder the media’s ranks are shrinking.

Part of the reason most consumers of news do not know these stories is that organizations like mine have long worked to ensure that journalists never become the story. Press freedom groups have typically operated under the assumption that the best way to protect fact-based, investigative journalism is to shield the storyteller from violence. And, like most journalists, we have opted to do our jobs quietly, rather than burdening readers and viewers with how dangerous the profession has become. But it is time to change our approach, and make a point of highlighting the hazards.

For example, Ntege was released only after considerable effort by a team of lawyers retained by Reporters Respond, the Free Press Unlimited emergency fund for journalist safety. Since the fund’s inception in 2011, it has helped dozens of journalists around the world, including, most recently, a group of reporters fleeing mob violence in Burundi. And a huge number of organizations aid journalists in distress in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. These stories behind the news must be told.

Of course, telling these tales is just the beginning. Press freedom advocates must also deliver journalists a stronger, more coordinated framework for their protection and safety. To that end, my organization is engaging with other global entities to strengthen the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. We have also begun holding regular meetings with other media freedom groups to devise a path forward. And, we have started working to ensure that media protections are backed up by legislation and enforcement. Journalists will need brave prosecutors and judges to hold attackers accountable if impunity is to end.

But the most important changes must come from within the media industry itself. Because journalists’ safety directly affects news organizations’ employees, freelancers, and audiences, these organizations should report on the topic. With attacks on the press increasing, the old approach – prideful silence – no longer makes sense. If the journalists use their platforms to inform the world of the dangers they and their colleagues face, the world will have to listen.

Violence against journalists has historically been an issue that has remained behind the headlines. On November 2, as the world recognizes the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, let’s commit to making these stories front-page news.

Leon Willems is Director of Free Press Unlimited.

By Leon Willems

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