In response, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has declared 2019 to be a year of diplomatic and practical action on press freedom and journalism safety. The UK government’s push to convene ideas and find new solutions is a refreshing move- take human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s appointment as Special Envoy on Media Freedom just last week.
The enormity of the challenge, however, cannot be understated. In my view, it comes not a moment too soon and is worthy of greater public concern.
The need to equip the world’s journalists with tools to perform to the best of their ability – to do so safely and in the knowledge that crimes against press freedom will not be met with impunity – is massive and growing.
While the British Foreign Office has long supported a mix of discrete projects to strengthen the media space around the world, this is the first time in recent memory the issue has become such an explicit focus.
Khashoggi is among 80 recorded deaths of journalists in the line of duty last year. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are among more than 400 journalists being held in prison or held hostage worldwide, as a result of their work. These figures are up and the worst for years. And yet they are but the tip of a terrifying iceberg.
It’s disturbingly easy to pick a country at random and find troubling evidence of these trends. In Serbia for example, the Independent Journalists’ Association reports that 2018 witnessed double the number of harassment and intimidation cases against journalists compared with two years ago.
Worldwide, Internews provided training and support to upwards of 10,000 journalists in more than 60 countries last year. Yet still, this is but a larger chunk of the same iceberg of urgent need.
Back in 2014, through the efforts of then Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the Foreign Office quite rightly mobilized international alarm at the horrors of sexual violence in war zones. This increased profile struck a powerful chord with the general public; the fundamental qualities of humanity causing profound concern at the cumulative horrors of conflict.
In 2019, as civic space rapidly shrinks in too many places, we should be equally horrified at the consequences for journalists and journalism; the negative impact this has on the ability of society to function properly; the grim fate of the murdered, the missing and the imprisoned and fellow human beings persecuted for seeking and reporting the truth.
The last decade has created a perfect storm that threatens the survival of free and independent media. As global internet giants gobble up the world’s advertising budgets by the billions, the staple revenue stream for non-state backed media has vanished, with much independent journalism the casualty of an economic collapse. Propaganda and misinformation are quick to fill this information vacuum.
Online, investigative journalism has opened new avenues of reporting in repressive environments, yet the digital revolution has brought additional dangers for journalists as well. They are confronted with a cyber security minefield where their data, their content, and their contacts are all vulnerable to hacking and surveillance by those wishing to silence the truth. Hundreds of journalists, especially freelancers, tell us that better digital security is one of their greatest needs.
The high profile cases of Jamal Khashoggi, Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and many more underscore the importance of Jeremy Hunt’s continued campaign. This truly is the issue of our time. It remains vital to call out the most egregious violations of journalists’ rights – and to increase the diplomatic costs for their perpetrators. But a successful campaign must be even broader and display greater ambition.
It will need equal attention, at the very least, to the commercial and digital threats to a free and effective media. It needs the public at large to care about the fate of journalists and journalism. Yet, public and diplomatic outrage at abuses of press freedom also has limitations; we need an on-going effort to make media stronger, everywhere, to prevent those abuses in the first place. Taken together, these challenges need sustained attention, at scale, over a period of years. It requires greater collaboration between like-minded nations, and commitments of international support that will outlive any government of the day.
With each missed opportunity, each media outlet’s lost battle for economic survival, each wrongly jailed journalist, every life lost – another little bit of the truth dies with them. Much as the past decade has brought acute disruption and peril to the global journalism community, so the coming decade should be characterized by a concerted effort to stem the tide.
If the international community fails in this mission, we will creep ever closer towards a global, Orwellian truth-deprived dystopia. Let’s not wait until we get there before we start to care.
This op-ed originally ran in eureporter-politics.
(Banner photo: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt)