Protecting Journalists in Increasingly Dangerous Circumstances

The safety of journalists has become a key issue in recent years, as reporters are increasingly harassed and targeted by hostile governments and organizations because of their work.

On February 12th, government representatives, civil society members, and journalists gathered at IPI for a panel discussion on the topic, co-organized with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The panel, on “Protecting Journalists and Freedom of Expression in the Face of Conflict,” drew a large crowd as participants exchanged views on what governments and international organizations can do to better protect journalists who take life-threatening risks.

“Journalists go where most people are unable or unwilling to go [and] place themselves in dangerous situations in order to disclose wrongdoing,” said Norway’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Bård Glad Pedersen. “It is precisely because of this important watchdog role that journalists and media workers are targeted. They are threatened and imprisoned—even killed—for doing their job.”

Journalists covering conflicts face the highest risks, Mr. Pedersen said, but he also said the vast majority of attacks actually take place outside war zones. “Nine out of 10 journalists killed are local reporters covering local issues,” he lamented.

The recent raid against the weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris is an example in point, the panelists said. Agnes Callamard, the director of the Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project at Columbia University, said the attack demonstrates how the relationship between violence and geography has become more fluid than it used to be.

“What happened in Paris to me is an interesting example of a local issue becoming a global issue that has re-become local by targeting specific individuals in Paris,” she said, referring to the alleged ties between the attackers and al-Qaeda in Yemen, thousands of miles away. “There is a globalization of the terrorism phenomenon.”

The dangers connected to doing their jobs have pushed news organizations to adopt a series of security measures to protect their journalists and staff, the panelists said. Matthew Rosenberg, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times covering events in Afghanistan, said the steps taken at the Times’ Kabul office are a clear indication that the threat is being taken seriously.

Despite the fact that the bureau is in the Green Zone, which is meant to be safer than the rest of the Afghan capital, Mr. Rosenberg said “there are huge steel doors at the entrance, massive sandbag barriers, and razor wire, and that’s just the wall. There is just a lot of security there.”

But Mr. Rosenberg also acknowledged that these measures require funds, something a large news organization like the New York Times can invest in. That’s not the case for small organizations that rely on freelancers, who, according to Judith Matloff of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, are particularly vulnerable.

“Today we’re seeing young people in their early to mid-20s going out to Syria with no experience whatsoever,” she said, noting that the vast majority of US journalists killed in Syria have in fact been freelancers. “That’s one reason why we are seeing this problem.”

According to the panelists, a big part of the responsibility lays in the hands of the governments who are failing to do their part. David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, pointed out that the protection of journalists is enshrined in key international treaties, which are unfortunately being ignored.

“Journalists are engaged in the thing at the heart of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that is, the ‘protected right to seek, receive, and impart information on ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers and regardless of medium’,” he said. Anyone failing to abide by this is falling short of these standards.

At the panel’s conclusion, Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo said the release that day of two of his colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who had been detained by the Egyptian government for 441 days, was a welcome development and a “small step in the right direction.” Both journalists were released on bail the same day they were scheduled to appear in court and are now expected for a retrial on February 23rd. Their colleague, Peter Greste, who was convicted with them, was freed a few days earlier and deported to his native Australia.

The Egyptian case has been a contentious one for the past year or so, as several governments had urged Cairo to release the journalists who had been detained on charges including aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news.

Mr. Pedersen said that, for its part, the Norwegian government always tries to raise these issues when meeting with other states both at the bilateral and multilateral level. Following up and offering recommendations is key when ensuring that these measures are really implemented, he said.

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge moderated the discussion.

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