The outrage is palpable across the centuries. In the first issue of his provocative newspaper The North Briton, John Wilkes championed the “liberty of the press”. It was “the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected.”
Wilkes was writing specifically for a British audience. He could hardly have foreseen the news media of today, when his words could have been read on the other side of the world as soon as he posted them. He lived in the 18th century, an era of a different type of globalisation – one driven by ships sailing out to trade or conquer.
Imagine Wilkes were to return to earth now. Let him set aside for a moment his inevitable astonishment at how technology has transformed journalism, and continues to transform it. He would still be dismayed at how little has changed. For there are plenty of “bad ministers” with “dark and dangerous designs” in many different parts of the world.
Judging by the way things have unfolded for the news media in the last two decades especially, many governments continue to see the news media as a source of “terror” – not excluding the UK, which is slipping precipitously down the press freedom rankings.
Guilt by association
Wilkes presumably intended “terror” to mean extreme fear. In the case of Al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed the word has, absurdly, taken on the meaning more often used since September 11 2001.
I should disclose that Peter Greste and I are former colleagues at both Reuters Television and BBC News. Our previous professional association, as much as the reports I have read of his arrest and detention, means I use the word “absurdly” advisedly.
Greste and his colleagues are on trial in Egypt charged with assisting a “terrorist organisation”. Needless to say, they deny the charges. Their trial has been adjourned until May 3 – a date which the United Nations has designated annual World Press Freedom Day.
What is ominous for the cause of press freedom in general, and for individual journalists in particular, is the way reporters are so readily associated with the policies of governments in their home countries. Journalism does not operate in a vacuum separate from politics and diplomacy; in this case, the government of Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement now driven from office and declared “terrorists” by the country’s current rulers.
Meanwhile, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was detained in April by a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. The reason, according to a report on The Guardian website was that he was “suspected of bad activities”. Thankfully, he was released, seemingly unharmed, a few days later.
Ever since journalism began to take on its modern form, it has often been in conflict with political and military authorities. Yet the situation seems to have deteriorated in the past twenty years or so – the instability after the Cold War and the wars which followed 9/11 proving especially hazardous for reporters.
A 2009 report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took the title End of a Deadly Decade. The report highlighted areas which are less frequently covered in the western media: the Philippines, Somalia, and the drug wars of Mexico. All were the site of multiple media deaths, and all continue to be lethal arenas for reporters.
Governments today face the challenge of coping with a media environment which is much harder to control than in the pre-internet age. New emphasis is placed upon media messaging, especially in time of armed conflict.
As Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry official, told me in an interview for the BBC after his country’s 2008 war with Russia: “In this century, and in a conflict where you have a huge power against a small state, I think that’s almost as important as the military battle,”
The point is more generally relevant. Unlike The North Briton, much of today’s journalism is available around the world, around the clock. One consequence seems to be that reporters themselves are increasingly singled out. If you can’t muzzle the medium, you can jail the journalist – or worse.
The result is that attempts to gag the news media have gone global: Egypt detains an Australian journalist working for a Qatari News Channel; pro-Russian forces detain a U.S. citizen reporting from Ukraine.
As the IFJ’s 2009 report noted: “The adoption of Resolution 1738 by the United Nations Security Council in 2006, which called for the protection of journalists in conflict zones and for proper investigation into violent attacks on media, has largely been ignored.”
So while World Press Freedom Day is welcome, action would be better. Armed conflict, economic uncertainty, climate change and all the other challenges the world will face this century need to be reported. Trying to do so should not carry the risk of detention or death.