Why we need to unite to fight back against the global war on journalism

Most recently, it was Avijit Roy, a US-Bangladeshi blogger and activist, hacked to death in Daaka by religious extremists. Then before that, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, held in pre-trial detention since December. And before that, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto (pictured above), yet another reporter murdered by the ISIL terrorist group. 2014 was one of the most dangerous years on record for journalists worldwide, after starting with the Charlie Hebdo massacre – 2015 looks set to surpass it.

Broadcasters and news outlets are beginning to awaken to an unpleasant fact – that what we are witnessing is not just a case of a unlucky reporters caught in the crossfire, but an attack on the press on an unprecedented scale – a global war on journalism. And it’s getting worse.

In February, Reporters Without Borders released its World Press Freedom Index, which found that, across the board, violations of press freedom had increased in 2014 by 8 per cent over the previous year. The increase wasn’t only in trouble spots like Syria, Iraq and Libya, but across all continents.

We have entered an era where the traditional respect for journalistic neutrality is carrying increasingly less weight. News bureaus are having to radically alter their approaches to newsgathering, with many major broadcasters simply refusing to send their teams into danger zones.

Freelances taking up the slack are increasingly bearing the brunt of the violence. In February, a group of global news broadcasters and journalism organisations gathered to draft and endorse a code of safety for freelance journalists.

Violence against journalists, epitomised by the crimes of ISIL terrorists, is at the most basic level, a warning to anyone trying to shed light on criminal activity. And it’s a testament to the global power of journalism in the digital age that so many criminal groups feel so threatened by it.

ISIL, like any other authoritarian regime, is fuelled by its own self-generated mythology. With little first-hand reporting to deflate it, ISIL’s carefully-manufactured public persona has gone malevolently viral. Public policy is now being informed on the basis of the atrocities depicted in an ISIL propaganda video.

Reporters Without Borders has called the areas controlled by ISIL "news black holes". "This media blackout has a disastrous impact on the local population and the international community’s understanding and appreciation of the conflict,” says the organisation.

But it’s not just the direct intimidation of journalists that has become an issue. Journalists are increasingly being used as political currency.

When the Egyptian government imprisoned three Al Jazeera journalists for more than 400 days, many saw it not just as a move to restrict reporting, but as an explicit challenge to Al Jazeera's funders, the government of Qatar, whom the Egyptian government had accused of aiding the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Though Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste had no personal connection with the state of Qatar or its policies, merely being associated with the network seemed to be enough to put them in jeopardy.

It is easy for western, democratic countries to point out the democratic shortcomings of the Middle East and the Global South. But what example has the West set in safeguarding a strong, independent press?

During the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, US missiles hit Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad. Whether they were deliberately targeted is still under dispute, but the locations of the offices were widely known.

The Iraq War alone saw more journalists killed than in all of World War II. The vast majority were not battle casualties, but victims of deliberate, targeted assassinations.

The embedding of journalists with US forces at such an unprecedented level during the invasions could have helped those with an agenda blur the lines between journalist and combatant.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 for their investigation into the Watergate scandal, an investigation which relied on sources. Now, investigative reporters in the US can be threatened with jail time for not disclosing sources to government officials. The days of confidentiality between reporter and source are gone. And the penalties for leakers and whistleblowers are so great, that many of potential whistleblowers simply won’t risk talking to journalists.

Powerful democracies have often set a standard for others to emulate, and turning their back on a free and independent press gives tacit permission for other countries to do so as well.

The solution to such a global problem must be a global push back from journalists and broadcasters, and the citizens they serve, the first step of which is admitting that – like climate change – this is a global problem with global ramifications. It is an escalating global trend and not just the result of temporary political instability.

Crimes against journalists must be aggressively investigated and prosecuted, but responsibility cannot be left solely to governments – some of whom may have little interest in guaranteeing a safer and freer press.

The AIB and other media industry trade organisations need to cooperate in sharing information and supporting our members through advocacy, networking and public information. In the past months, the AIB has been especially active in decrying the mistreatment of RFE/RL journalists in Azerbaijan and the imprisonment of Al Jazeera’s team in Egypt.

Based on the global support shown for the network’s imprisoned journalists, Al Jazeera’s Heather Allan expressed hope for the future: “I just think we’ve got an opportunity here. There’s been a groundswell of support for our guys, and I think it would be a pity once we get them released to lose that groundswell. It’s coming from our peer group, it’s coming from the industry, it’s coming from governments. It’s coming from the UN and UNESCO. It’s coming from some really interesting places.”

AIB will continue to support journalists as they go about their work wherever that may be in the world. It is vital that they continue to witness, and to bear witness, to the world around us without fear for their lives, and the responsibility for safeguarding that belongs to us all.

Simon Spanswick is chief Executive of Association for International Broadcasting and Neal Romanek is its editorial director.

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