10 November 2007

Stand up for journalism

By Juliette Harkin

Reporters Without Borders catalogues the most feared 'predators' of press freedom in its infamous hall of fame. All the usual suspects are featured, from Musharraf's new Pakistan and Burma’s military to Nigeria's State Security Council. At any given time journalists around the world are being harassed, held without charge, beaten and some murdered for doing their job. In these cases it is the direct hand of the government, leaders and military who can be blamed for the flagrant disregard for freedom of the press.

People are risking their lives to impart knowledge about the every day events in our world. Article 19 reminds us in its global campaign for free expression that:
    Freedom and expression and a free and independent media constitute crucial actors in the development process and the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is the most potent force to strengthen peace and pre-empt conflict. It is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.
The state of the media is one of the key indicators as to the health and authenticity of a democracy and should serve as a source for knowledge and education.

And yet journalists continue to suffer at the hands of controlling governments. Egypt's courts have been kept busy over the last months in dealing with cases of journalists covering things that the government doesn't want them to – notably local corruption and speculation about the health of President Mubarak. Editors working on the few seemingly independent newspapers are being sentenced to hard labour for damaging the interests of the state.

In fact what is happening is that these journalists are continuing to push and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Egypt's historically controlled state media environment. If any 'crime' is being committed at all, it might be ceded that the editorial process has not been strong enough to ensure that their reports can stand up. This should lead to action on raising professional standards not imprisonment.

Some countries of course don't even bother with the pretence of a judicial system. In Afghanistan and Burma journalists are simply killed if they become troublesome, in Iraq we are all too familiar with the grim reality of a complete breakdown of order resulting in assassinations of journalists going about their daily work. The committee to protect journalists keeps a score card – 56 deaths worldwide so far this year. Western governments certainly shouldn’t be let off the hook. Media organisations are not and should never be seen as acceptable military targets or collateral damage. The attack on al-Jazeera in Baghdad that killed Tariq Ayoub in 2003 is a case in point. The fact is that al-Jazeera and other channels were airing the unpleasant reality of war, including the high number of civilian deaths and the rising American body count.

Our journalists at home are safe, but we should not be too complacent. There are now ever greater challenges for journalists in this era of news on demand, interactive formats and so-called dumbed down information for increasingly busy people. In a paper entitled Do you get what you want? the European Federation of Journalists, the Association of Professional Journalists (AJP) and the Flemish Association of Journalists (VVJ) have come together to tackle what they see as some of the most pressing issues in the profession of journalism today. Working conditions and the creeping influence of commercial considerations are highlighted as of growing concern.

The lines between profit and content are blurring and the National Union of Journalists recently went as far as to call for a new 'Berlin Wall' to be erected to protect the journalists from the cut and thrust of the advertising budgets that pay for their newspapers. Meanwhile those striving for the highest standards of reporting, such as Le Monde Diplomatique, struggle with financially because they are operating with a clear conscience.

The International Federation for Journalists website quotes Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe Thomas Hammerberg as saying that "even in Europe's democratic heartlands governments and media employers were undermining scope for quality journalism". Along side attacks and harassment of journalists in Sudan, Article 19 publishes its latest report on concerns about free expression here in the UK. We are not immune and take our media and journalists for granted at our peril.