Risky business: Journalists around the world under direct attack


The truth is in danger. Working with reporters and writers around the world, Index continually hears first-hand stories of the pressures of reporting, and of how journalists are too afraid to write or broadcast because of what might happen next.

In 2016 journalists are high-profile targets. They are no longer the gatekeepers to media coverage and the consequences have been terrible. Their security has been stripped away. Factions such as the Taliban and IS have found their own ways to push out their news, creating and publishing their own “stories” on blogs, YouTube and other social media. They no longer have to speak to journalists to tell their stories to a wider public. This has weakened journalists’ “value”, and the need to protect them. In this our 250th issue, we remember the threats writers faced when our magazine was set up in 1972 and hear from our reporters around the world who have some incredible and frightened stories to tell about pressures on them today.

Around 2,241 journalists were killed between 1996 and 2015, according to statistics compiled by Cardiff University and the International News Safety Institute. And in Colombia during 2015 104 journalists were receiving state protection, after being threatened.

In Yemen, considered by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be one of the deadliest countries to report from, only the extremely brave dare to report. And that number is dwindling fast. Our contacts tell us that the pressure on local journalists not to do their job is incredible. Journalists are kidnapped and released at will. Reporters for independent media are monitored. Printed publications have closed down. And most recently 10 journalists were arrested by Houthi militias. In that environment what price the news? The price that many journalists pay is their lives or their freedom. And not just in Yemen.

Syria, Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq, all appear in the top 10 of league tables for danger to journalists. In just the last few weeks National Public Radio’s photojournalist David Gilkey and colleague Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Afghanistan as they went about their work in collecting information, and researching stories to tell the public what is happening in that war-blasted nation. One of our writers for this issue was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in 1990s and remembers how different it was then. Reporters could walk down the street and meet with the Taliban without fearing for their lives. Those days have gone. Christina Lamb, from London’s Sunday Times, tells Index, that it can even be difficult to be seen in a public place now. She was recently asked to move on from a coffee shop because the owners were worried she was drawing attention to the premises just by being there.

Physical violence is not the only way the news is being suppressed. In Eritrea, journalists are being silenced by pressure from one of the most secretive governments in the world. Those that work for state media do so with the knowledge that if they take a step wrong, and write a story that the government doesn’t like, they could be arrested or tortured.

In many countries around the world, journalists have lost their status as observers and now come under direct attack. In the not-too-distant past journalists would be on frontlines, able to report on what was happening, without being directly targeted.

So despite what others have described as “the blizzard of news media” in the world, it is becoming frighteningly difficult to find out what is happening in places where those in power would rather you didn’t know. Governments and armed groups are becoming more sophisticated at manipulating public attitudes, using all the modern conveniences of a connected world. Governments not only try to control journalists, but sometimes do everything to discredit them.

As George Orwell said: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Telling the truth is now being viewed by the powerful as a form of protest and rebellion against their strength.

We are living in a historical moment where leaders and their followers see the freedom to report as something that should be smothered, and asphyxiated, held down until it dies.

What we have seen in Syria is a deliberate stifling of news, making conditions impossibly dangerous for international media to cover, making local news media fear for their lives if they cover stories that make some powerful people uncomfortable. The bravest of the brave carry on against all the odds. But the forces against them are ruthless.

As Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell write in their upcoming book, Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security: “The killing of journalists is clearly not only to shock but also to intimidate. As such it has become an effective way for groups and even governments to reduce scrutiny and accountability, and establish the space to pursue non-democratic means.”

In Turkey we are seeing the systematic crushing of the press by a government which appears to hate anyone who says anything it disagrees with, or reports on issues that it would rather were ignored. Journalists are under pressure, and so is the truth.

As our Turkey contributing editor Kaya Genç reports on page 64, many of Turkey’s most respected news outlets are closing down or being forced out of business. Secrets are no longer being aired and criticism is out of fashion. But mobs attacking newspaper buildings is not. Genç also believes that society is shifting and the public is being persuaded that they must pick sides, and that somehow media that publish stories they disagree with should not have a future.

That is not a future we would wish upon the world.

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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94291″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228208533353″][vc_custom_heading text=”Afghanistan in 1978-81″ font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228208533353|||”][vc_column_text]April 1982

Anthony Hyman looks at the changing fortunes of Afghan intellectuals over the past four or five years.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94251″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228208533410″][vc_custom_heading text=”Colombia: a new beginning?” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228208533410|||”][vc_column_text]August 1982

Gabriel García Márquez and others who faced brutal government repression following the 1982 election.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”93979″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228408533703″][vc_custom_heading text=”Repression in Iraq and Syria” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228408533703|||”][vc_column_text]April 1983

An anonymous report from Amnesty point to torture, special courts and hundreds of executions in Iraq and Syria. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Danger in truth: truth in danger” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2F2016%2F05%2Fdanger-in-truth-truth-in-danger%2F|||”][vc_column_text]The summer 2016 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at why journalists around the world face increasing threats.

In the issue: articles by journalists Lindsey Hilsum and Jean-Paul Marthoz plus Stephen Grey. Special report on dangerous journalism, China’s most famous political cartoonist and the late Henning Mankell on colonialism in Africa.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”76282″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/05/danger-in-truth-truth-in-danger/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsubscribe%2F|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Strategic communications: a force for good?

The best and the brightest of the men and women tasked to spread the word in favour of military-humanitarian missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and other well-known western policy disaster areas gathered in London this week.

Scores of senior spokespersons, convened by the UK media development consultancy Albany Associates, met to discuss “Strategic Communications in Countries Emerging from Violent Conflict” and hear from the maestros of the trade — Blair-era spinmeister Alastair Campbell and Kosovo war NATO spokesman Jamie Shea among them.

The uniquely British system of self-censorship known as Chatham House Rules precludes the public linking of name to publicly stated opinion. But I am sure the veteran Sunday Times Afghanistan correspondent Christina Lamb, one of this week’s speakers, will forgive me for crediting her with the view that strategic communications is no more than spin for warfare.

My own view, from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that at its worst it is little more than putting a little lipstick on a pig of a combat mission. The honourable purpose of this week’s conference is to establish if it can be more than that.

According to Albany Associates, strategic communications covers: “Integrated communications; public diplomacy; crisis communications; core narrative development; communications audits; media relations”.

To its most famous British exponent, strategic communications is not about spinning favourable coverage, or getting good press coverage, or manipulating the public agenda. Instead it is about giving policymakers and implementers the space they need to move from A to B.

Which is why, he said, policymakers should take the opportunity to fully incorporate communications into policy development and implementation from the outset.

As was very neatly illustrated by another speaker, on a chart tracking speed of response and effect of PR statements, al Qaida can often leave western officials behind in the dust while they verify reports of atrocities.

The pressure on western spokesmen to fill the void between local allegation and international rebuttal can tempt them into hasty, inaccurate or misleading statements. Without the online evidence produced by citizens in Afghanistan, for example, the true scale of recent civilian deaths during bungled US military air attacks would never have been revealed.

The threat to the moral integrity of strategic communications is that it exists side by side by with an ongoing effort by the US military to break down the traditional barriers between propaganda, strategic disinformation and traditional public diplomacy, the all-purpose phrase used in Washington for everything from student exchanges to US sponsored ballet company tours.

It also shares space with PR companies that believe that the techniques applied to defend the reputations of car manufacturers who make SUVs with duff brakes can be applied as easily in defence of nations that make wars with duff claims to legitimacy.

Or as one suit claimed, their familiarity with commercial brand management opened their eyes to “deconstructing” a “brand” like al Qaida and “understanding” its attractiveness. If you can build up a brand, he noted, you can bring it down. The US military call it Information Operations — central to the global counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy inspired by Iraq-Afghanistan commanding US army general David Petraeus.

Yet after years of hearing claims that strategic communications is more than just dull state propaganda, its promises to deliver everything from working drains in Mazar e Sharif to the defeat of global terrorism, it seems to have failed to deliver everything except the reinforcement of citizen journalism as a direct challenge to its workings.

Its acolytes argue that the problem is that we are just doing it wrong. Even they argue that good strategic communications cannot salvage bad policy. And it is hard not to be tempted by its siren song of simplicity; all you need is an objective, a strategy and tactics. Start with that and stick with it through hell and high water.

A speaker recalled a diplomatic conversation with former president Bill Clinton about Russian nuclear missile counts on the day the catastrophic Starr Report was published. Later he asked him how he managed to carry on?

Clinton told him. He had an objective (not to leave power in shame); a strategy (to do the job that only he as president could do); and tactics (to make sure people knew he was doing that job). And, said the speaker, visibly impressed, it worked.

Tempting indeed. You can survive a Lewinsky affair or a war started in the face of public resistance of a million or more voters, armed with no more than strategic communication’s 15 key rules of engagement.

But maybe free expression rights campaigners could put the same techniques to honourable use in pursuit of their own objectives. Albany Associates have deployed everything from street theatre to children’s clown shows in their work embedding communication in stabilisation and reconstruction programmes in Sudan.

The power of radio in post-conflict societies to advocate for peaceful dialogue and health and education rights for marginalised communities is well documented. The biggest challenge to rights advocacy groups today is to move beyond traditional statements of protest to direct engagement with opponents through new communications strategies, including those being discussed today in London.

Well I did say it was a siren song…

Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor at Index on Censorship. You can follow his tweets from the Strategic Communications in Countries Emerging from Violent Conflict Conference on #stratcomms. Details of the 24/25 June Albany Associates and Post Conflict People conference on http://bit.ly/iWZuc