Picture: Carter-Ruck senior partner Cameron Doley (inset) who represented the 'Al Jazeera Three'
Last year has been identified as the second worst on record regarding the imprisonment of journalists worldwide. With no fewer than 221 journalists put behind bars last year according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an understanding of their legal rights and protections is more important than ever.
The high-profile case of the ‘Al Jazeera Three’ (Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed) sheds particular light on the dangers facing foreign correspondents. Imprisoned by the military regime in Egypt from December 2013 on demonstrably political charges of "spreading false news" and having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, they spent more than a year in jail before a retrial was ordered at the beginning of 2015.
Peter Greste was then released and deported to Australia. However, his two colleagues remain in Egypt on bail, while their retrial proceeds at a snail’s pace with single day-long hearings being dotted among adjournments measured in weeks. It is impossible to predict when the final resolution will arrive, still less what it will be – and all this notwithstanding the largest campaign ever mounted in support of jailed journalists.
At least the Al Jazeera Three do not appear to have faced an actual threat to life and limb. Some 28 journalists have already died in action in 2015, following 135 recorded deaths in 2014. The harrowing Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the murder by beheading in Syria of James Foley are the prominent tip of a much larger iceberg documented by the International Federation of Journalists.
In these circumstances, it is obviously vital that journalists operating abroad educate themselves thoroughly prior to being deployed, taking account of threats posed to their physical safety by both state and non-state actors as well as considering the restrictions which will impinge upon their activities under local law.
No one-size-fits all guidance can be given and an individual risk assessment must be undertaken that is tailored to meet the specifics of the country or region in question.
As far as physical safety is concerned, general guidance (for example that provided by the International Federation of Journalists for journalists in war-zones) can be helpful. However, there is no substitute for local expertise, particularly where a volatile environment is involved, and the input of specialists on the ground – such as security consultants or at least experienced and trusted fixers – should always be considered.
Exit routes, both physical and political, should be planned for every situation and support networks should be in place at every stage of deployment, be these established within the organisation that employs the journalist or externally, for example the consular department of the relevant embassy.
Freelance journalists should also be aware of their ability to call upon emergency assistance, from bodies such as the Rory Peck Trust and Gene Roberts Fund, to help with international evacuation or legal proceedings when a critical situation arises.
Turning to legal restrictions, it goes without saying that a journalist must set aside his or her habitual Anglo-Saxon or West European mindset when operating elsewhere in the world.
Although certain principles relating to freedom of the press and freedom of expression are trumpeted as being universal in nature (witness Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), these are as often honoured in the breach as in the observance and, particularly in non-democratic states, the journalist must acquaint himself with the reality rather than the theory.
The constitutions of China and Iran, for example, guarantee freedom of speech and of the press; however, they rank first and second in current tables relating to the imprisonment of journalists.
Concepts such as defaming the state are unknown in most parts of the developed world. However, they must be considered in non-democratic countries. Again, there is no substitute for local expertise and particularly the expertise of a local lawyer.
Notwithstanding that freedom of speech has long been considered a fundamental characteristic of democratic societies, there is a current trend among undoubtedly democratic states involving the passage of state security legislation that provides for the arrest and imprisonment of journalists.
Both Australia and Japan have recently passed such legislation, while the proposed Protection of State Information Bill in South Africa (which has not yet been signed into law) would prohibit stories that originate from ‘classified’ material even where publication can be shown to be in the public interest.
The landscape is changing in this area of law and journalists operating in the field, wherever that might be, should pay continuous attention to developments, seeking expert input where appropriate.
Cameron Doley is senior partner at Carter-Ruck Solicitors and represents Al Jazeera Media Network.