The following is a speech given by Index on Censorship trustee David Schlesinger at last week’s News Agencies World Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan.
A journalist is not a soldier. A pen is not a menace. A camera is not a gun.
Yet to far too many crooked governments, evil despots, corrupt moguls or power-mad militias, a journalist is more of a threat than even an armed opponent is. Their fear is that the journalist’s pen can write the story of suffering or malfeasance; the journalist’s camera can capture an image of the truth; the journalist’s story can move readers to tears – or more threateningly, to action.
So journalists are harassed, kidnapped and killed. Access to information is made difficult or cut off completely. Transparency becomes opacity. And the loser is society.
This is not an argument about democracy over another form of government. This is not an argument about systems of rule or the strengths or weaknesses of one leader over another. This is very simply an argument that for any society to function well, its people need to be informed.
Without knowledge, there is no accountability. Without accountability, there is only despotism and corruption. Every good system of government needs honesty and transparency to keep its legitimacy long term. Journalists and journalism need to be recognised and treasured as vital players in this struggle.
And yet they are not.
Some governments refuse access to news sites. Some leaders refuse to hold press conferences. Some prosecute journalists and their sources for legitimate newsgathering. Some harass reporters and their families, making the journalists’ choice of profession a serious liability. Some turn a blind eye when bullies and thugs use violence against journalists to stop their reporting. Some governments themselves take horrible physical vengeance on reporters, forcing them to put their bodies and souls in jeopardy in service of their calling.
In the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists: Murder is the ultimate form of censorship.
Since 1992, according to the CPJ, 1,210 journalists have been killed while reporting. Of those, 796 were murdered.
Death is not a danger merely for war correspondents – in some countries, reporters on almost every beat step into peril daily. Maybe their reporting offends a local boss. Maybe they get too close to a drug story, or a corruption story. Maybe they have to go into a dangerous no-man’s-land in search of the key fact or illuminating interview. Maybe they’re targeted simply for asking questions or appearing curious.
Of those journalists murdered, CPJ found that some of the targeted covered a business beat, some covered corruption, some covered crime, some covered culture, some covered human rights, some covered politics, some covered sports, some covered war. That’s nearly every beat imaginable, nearly every beat important to a media institution.
And the truly horrifying fact is that most of these murders are never investigated thoroughly, let alone punished.
Thus, all of us in the media sector should celebrate and recognise the importance of United Nations Security Council resolution 2222, adopted unanimously in May 2015, that strongly condemned the culture of impunity for violations and abuses committed against journalists in situations of armed conflict. This resolution emphasised the responsibility of all UN member states to comply with their obligations under international law to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law.
This was hugely important.
We must take comfort in the fact that the United Nations recognised the important work that journalists do in conflict zones and that it condemned attacks against them and demanded the end to a culture of impunity.
But we must also remember that horrific violence against journalists and the culture of impunity exists outside of armed conflict zones as well. Violence stalks the reporter covering links between police and the drug trade, the reporter combing through business records to track down corruption, the reporter uncovering government malfeasance and maladministration, the reporter asking too many questions of an overly sensitive strongman.
And we must also remember that despite the passage of resolution 2222 a year and a half ago, the problem has not gone away; the killings and murders have continued; the lack of accountability and justice remains.
This is unacceptable.
We at this conference have both a duty to take a stand and an opportunity to take constructive and important action.
First, we who have been or still are in the mainstream media have an obligation to open the eyes of the public and policy makers to the fact that the definition of journalists today is much broader than just the types of people here in this room.
We cannot think of bloggers, social media tweeters and independent reporters as the competition or – worse yet – as not of our profession. We must think of them as colleagues, and we must demand that the world look at them in the same way as it looks at us.
A door closed in the face of a blogger is a door closed in the face of every one of us. An independent journalist denied access to a press conference is merely a forerunner to one of us here being denied the next time. A freelancer kidnapped or injured or killed is a gaping, hurting wound on the entire profession.
We dishonour ourselves if we dishonour those who report in different ways or with different tools or with different employment statuses. We who have some position and status within our countries have an obligation to ensure that our colleagues who don’t currently have that respect get it. We must ensure that any protections that come to us also go to them.
Then, we must lobby and advocate for better access, better safety protections and an end to impunity for crimes against journalists. This is a convention of journalists with strong ties in their home bases. Many here are from national news agencies. The struggle must begin at home.
There is no country that has a perfect record in terms of access to information or safety for journalists. Every single one of our nations must do better. We can help make that happen.
When you leave this conference and return home, meet with policy makers. Insist that UN resolution 2222 be implemented fully and completely and that your country take a strong stand in favour of its spirit.
Meet with policy makers and insist that issues of journalistic access and safety extend beyond conflict zones and into the arena of domestic reporting, no matter how sensitive that may be. Make the case that journalism, no matter how uncomfortable, is for the good of society and that the legitimacy of that society is dependent on transparency.
Progress must begin at home, and we who are in this room and in this organisation have a privileged position with which to press the case Our profession has no meaning unless we are working in the service of truth and transparency. We cannot accept doors being slammed in our faces, lights being turned out on us and guns being trained on our bodies.
Let’s open the doors, turn on the lights and push the guns aside. Let’s call out against justice systems that allow impunity for crimes against journalists. Show them for what they are: enablers of crimes against truth. Let’s take a side, and insist that our nations’ leaders take a side, in favour of free flow of information, freedom of expression and freedom from the fear that just, honest, truthful reporting can get the journalist jailed or killed.
Those who are doing the reporting on the ground, in the conflict zones, in the records office, and in the corrupt localities are being incredibly brave.
Let us – we who are in the editors’ chairs, we who are in the executive suites, we who are in the conference centres, safe behind the front lines – let us match their bravery by supporting their rights to exist, be free, be safe and be full members of our profession.
A journalist is not a soldier, but he or she does fight for a cause. A pen is not a menace, but it is a weapon in the fight for truth and justice. A camera is not a gun, but it is a tool in the fight to record society for what it is.
And we need to ensure this fight is fought in safety.