At yesterday's conference on protecting journalists who cover conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry framed the issue succinctly: "The truth is that freedom of the press -- whether symbolized by a pencil, a pen, a camera, or a microphone -- is under siege, purposefully."
Rogue governments, extremist groups, corrupt officials and many others attack journalists who are exposing unpleasant truths -- and far too often they do so with impunity. Dictators and extremists thrive in silence just as democracies depend on the free flow of information.
Some horrific acts against journalists attract international condemnation, including the massacre at French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the videotaped beheadings of freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Other deaths occur without fanfare. Of the 61 journalist killings confirmed by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2014, three out of four were local reporters covering politics, organized crime, human rights atrocities, corruption, and other types of unrest or abuses of power in their own countries. Countless more were silenced by imprisonment and intimidation.
Sixty-one is not a big number compared to the 200,000 innocent civilians who have died in Syria’s four-year civil war or the thousands of victims of the conflict in Ukraine. Still, the systematic targeting of journalists has a far-reaching impact on freedom of expression for all of us, and protecting them is a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.
The risks that journalists face cannot be completely eliminated. Not for the freelancer covering the conflict in Syria or the local reporter writing about Mexico’s drug cartels. But steps can be taken to reduce those dangers.
To that end, the State Department sponsored this day-long conference in order to bring together outside experts from many disciplines and develop steps for concrete action. The focus was on helping journalism’s most vulnerable members – the freelancers and local reporters who often work without the training and support networks available to their colleagues from large news organizations.
The participants spanned the landscape of journalism and training. There were freelance reporters and photographers from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia; officials from NGOs in the United States and Britain that specialize in training and advocating for journalists; and executives from media organizations like the BBC, The New York Times, the Washington Post, VICE, and GlobalPost.
The State Department’s role was to convene the experts and encourage them to develop their own priorities for improving hostile-environment training and related security programs for freelancers and local reporters. Other broad topics rose to the surface too – the need for better digital security in the field, better pay for freelancers so they can afford to protect themselves and a coordinating group to standardize training programs.
Elisa Munoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, discussed her organization’s development of a mobile phone app that allows journalists to register before heading to risky areas and sets up intervals for checking in during the course of the assignment. This innovative use of technology will offer a safety net for freelancers and local reporters who often operate alone.
Two of the four brainstorming sessions developed specific timetables for action. And David Rohde, a Reuters investigative reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, described behind-the-scenes efforts by news organizations to develop guidelines for using freelancers that should help protect them.
As a former newspaper reporter and editor myself, my biggest take away from the vigorous discussion was that there are ways to pool existing resources and coordinate the development of new initiatives so that news organizations and NGOs can both avoid overlap and fill the gaps where necessary.
But there was another take away for me as a government official. One freelance reporter asked why the United States and other governments don’t do more when countries systematically oppress reporters and attack freedom of expression.
A fair question, and a tough one. Neither governments nor corrupt officials should be able to attack journalists -- or anyone -- with impunity. According to CPJ, no one was brought to justice in 96 percent of journalist killings last year, a percentage that has remained pretty steady for the 22 years the group has been monitoring the issue.
The United States strongly believes in freedom of expression as a universal human right. As Secretary Kerry said at the conference: "Each day, American diplomats make known our backing in one place or another directly to government, directly to the public, but firmly, in all cases, our backing for the right of people to speak, publish, broadcast, blog, tweet, and otherwise express themselves openly and without fear and without retribution."
While we may have competing policy priorities in many of the countries where threats against journalists are so severe, we need to be more robust and unequivocal in defending freedom of expression around the world.
As a government official and a former journalist, I know we can do more.
About the Author: Doug Frantz serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.
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