World Press Freedom Day: Shooting the messenger

Photo: ©Pete Muller.

When 12 people working at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were gunned down at their offices in central Paris in January, the world woke up to the grim reality of the threats thousands of media professionals face daily.

The global campaigns of support for the magazine’s work sent the unequivocal message that no one should pay with their lives the price of exercising their right to freedom of expression.

But behind this single story that dominated the international news headlines are thousands of media professionals who, in every corner of the world, are harassed, intimidated, threatened, tortured and unfairly jailed by governments and armed groups in a vile attempt to prevent them from holding up a mirror to society.

In countries such as Mexico and Pakistan, owning a press card is so dangerous that many media professionals end up quitting their jobs altogether, out of utter fear.

According to Reporters without Borders, 22 journalists and media workers have been killed and more than 160 have been imprisoned in 2015 alone. Nearly 100 media professionals were killed because of their work in 2014.

Those responsible for attacking and killing journalists very rarely face justice.

“Wherever you look in the world you will find the story of a journalist who has been harassed, threatened, unfairly jailed and even killed by a government or an armed group in a bid to stop them from reporting on issues seen as controversial,” said Susanna Flood, Media Director at Amnesty International.

“More and more, we are seeing governments less willing to tolerate dissent and being prepared to do anything to stop journalists from speaking out and informing the public. The message seems to be ‘if you dare to report on human rights issues you should be ready to spend time in prison or even be killed.”

The message seems to be ‘if you dare to report on human rights issues you should be ready to spend time in prison or even be killed.

Susanna Flood, Media Director at Amnesty International.

Shooting the messenger

In Pakistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, media workers routinely face harassment, intimidation, abduction, torture and killings at the hands of the military and intelligence services, political parties and armed groups.

Since 2008, it is estimated that 40 journalists have been killed as a direct consequence of their work reporting on issues such as national security and human rights violations.

As far as Amnesty International is aware, the Pakistani courts only convicted individuals in the cases of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, killed in 2002 and GEO News reporter Wali Khan Babar, killed in 2014.

Attacks against others, such as Hamid Mir, a journalist working for GEO TV who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Karachi last year, have gone unpunished with investigations stalled.

Trumped up chargesFor thousands of other people working in media outlets, punishment comes in the form of long prison sentences on trumped up charges.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, an Egyptian photojournalist known as “Shawkan” has been detained more than 600 days as punishment for taking pictures of the violent dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in in August 2013. He is yet to be formally charged with any crime and is languishing in a small cell in the infamous Tora Prison in Cairo.

“I share a cell that measures three by four metres with 12 political prisoners. We have no access to sun or fresh air for days or weeks at a time. I am a photojournalist, not a criminal. My indefinite detention is psychologically unbearable. Not even animals would survive in these conditions,” he recently said in a letter published by Amnesty International.

Shawkan’s story is far from unusual. Since President Morsi was ousted in July 2013, scores of journalists have been arrested or sentenced across Egypt as punishment for their work. Eighteen of them are still languishing behind bars with little hope of freedom.

Just like in Egypt, many governments across the world misuse the courts to prevent journalists from reporting on human rights issues or to punish those who do.

Mayan journalist Pedro Canché Herrera has been in jail since he was detained on 30 August 2014 for the alleged crime of sabotage in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. He was arrested days after publishing footage of a protest by citizens of the municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto outside the office of the local water board over increased rates and charges.

Raids, intimidation and harassmentGovernments also resort to raids and intimidation and harassment of journalists to stop them from reporting on issues they would rather keep off the public agenda.

In late December 2014, Bosnian authorities raided the offices of the popular news portal, and pressured journalists to reveal their sources in relation to a leaked audio recording allegedly uncovering high-level bribery.

Police confiscated laptops, 19 hard drives and private mobile phones in an operation that lasted seven hours and saw some of the equipment destroyed. An editor and a journalist were detained for questioning and later released without charges. A judicial review later found that the raid was unlawful as it violated the constitutional rights of the journalists.

Witnesses to armed conflictFrom Iraq to the Central African Republic, Colombia, Nigeria and Syria, journalists have faced threats and violence while trying to shed light onto the abuses faced by millions of men, women and children caught up in some of the world’s most violent conflicts.

Journalist Hamza Idris has faced intimidation at the hands of the Nigerian security forces because of his reporting. In 2014, after he published an article criticizing the military’s failure to properly protect civilians, eight soldiers stormed his office.

“They took the office manager and another member of staff to the 7 Division Headquarters at the Maimalari Barracks. Although they were eventually released, it was very frightening. We journalists are targets for everyone.”

Many kilometres away from Nigeria, in Colombia, journalists continue to be threatened and even killed for exposing human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of the country’s long-running armed conflict and the corrupt links some state officials have with illegal armed groups and organized crime.

According to Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP), 26 journalists have been threatened and at least one killed so far this year.

On 21 January, five journalists, as well as many human rights defenders who accompany victims of forced displacement and land grabs, were named in a written death threat signed by the paramilitary group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. Those named were labelled as guerrilla collaborators.

Iraq is also an extremely dangerous place for journalists. The Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, Ned Parker, had to leave the country in April after he was threatened on social media and on a TV channel owned by a Shi’a militia. The intimidation followed his reporting on human rights abuses committed by government forces and Shi’a militias during the liberation of Tikrit from the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). IS has also been responsible for the killings of journalists. .

“Journalism is not a crime. Media professionals are the eyes and ears of society. Governments have the responsibility to ensure they are able to report freely on human rights issues and without fear of being attacked or killed while doing their legitimate job. They have the responsibility of bringing to justice those responsible for any abuses. It is high time for states to take that responsibility seriously,” said Susanna Flood.

Read more:

Journalists silenced in Myanmar – free the Unity Five (Blog, 29 April 2015)