Tackling impunity

May 9, 2013

By Alex Glynn

Stark facts and personal tales of attacks on the press took the centre stage at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 8th May, in a session chaired by BBC Global News director Peter Horrocks

Elizabeth Witchel from CPJ gives the audience the stark facts about press feedoms. Photo: Alex Glynn

Elizabeth Witchel from CPJ details the findings from their current report on press freedom. Photo: Alex Glynn

Heather Blake from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) outlined why her organisation thinks this is an important issue to campaign on:

“It affects all of us. The hallmark of democracy, of society, of freedom is in the freedom of speech and the freedom of press. And the press being attacked is always a sign there are other violations taking place.”

Defence and diplomatic correspondent at The Independent, Kim Sengupta, stated the immense importance of shedding light on what is happening “and it is essential they are protected to tell the truth.”

Getty Images picture editor Aidan Sullivan reminded the audience:

“If people aren’t being held accountable for killing and hurting journalists, we will eventually get to a point where sadly it is too dangerous to go and cover stories.”

He started the press freedom campaign A Day Without News? because, he explained: “I’ve just lost too many friends.”

Elizabeth Witchel of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) relayed the findings of their current report. She also reminded the audience of the human face to the statistics, drawing attention to a banner featuring the face of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist who was found dead in a canal in 2011, showing signs of torture.

Blake shifted the conversation to the increasing role and repression of citizen and digital journalists (netizens) and talked about how RSF now records acts of impunity against these groups as well as traditional journalists:

“One of the stark changes in what RSF is calling ‘the changing character of reporting’ is the proliferation of citizen and netizen journalism. Due to this change, the impunity against digital community users is on the rise – they have become the new target of state and non-state actors.”

On this point Horrocks asked:

“Is there a danger that by extending the definition of those that RSF are concerned about, regimes will say you’re talking about people we would see as activists?”

An international humanitarian lawyer in the audience chipped into the debate:

“I think the conflicts of the last few years, including Syria, highlight that this is the role that these people will fill when the international media is excluded a large part of the time.”

Sengupta cautioned that this was a problematic point:

“I have great difficulties because I think as a journalist you try to subscribe to a certain ethos – we try to be objective. And citizen journalists are not. In Libya, guys who were writing on the web were then picking up the gun and going to fight.”

Sullivan agreed with Sengupta, warning that although netizens are not combatants, and they should be protected, it shouldn’t necessarily be as journalists:

“When we start to blur those lines, what we’re trying to do and what I’m trying to achieve becomes more difficult.”

Alex Glynn is a freelance journalist currently doing a Newspaper Journalism MA at City University.

You can watch the session or listen to the podcast below.