ICONIC event: Safety for journalists

Bringing a press freedom event to the European Parliament 

If a journalist is killed in secret and their death never reported, is the injustice heard? It’s unfortunately not a hypothetical question, as we learned in one of the discussions at the European Parliament’s Info Hub in Brussels, Belgium.

Alongside our exhibition ‘ICONIC - Defending press freedom and democracy since 1955,’ curated especially for the European Parliament, we’ve organized a number of free events as a side program. The second event in the series, moderated by Sanne Schim van der Loeff, from Arena for Journalism in Europe, brought together organizations working in different ways to protect journalists to better understand the threats they are facing in the EU and around the world. Here we share our main takeaways from the event.

Jail and murder

This particular case was shared by Sabah A. from Media Defence, an organization which works foremost to keep journalists safe, but also to demand justice when they aren’t. She could not share the details of this case, out of consideration for the family and legal situation, and there is a lot that is still not known, but she explained that someone had published something a repressive government did not like. They were taken, jailed and died in prison. The family found out only later.

There are 500 journalists in prison around the world. In the past year, 50 journalists have died, according to Julie Majerczak from Reporters Without Borders. She also pointed out that the vast majority of these deaths don’t happen in war zones, although there are some countries where physical threats are much higher than others. 

Legal threats

As we learned during this event, physical threats are only the tip of the iceberg. Legal threats are also increasing. Wealthy companies and individuals are using lawsuits to intimidate and silence critics. One tactic popularized in the United States, and now being seen in the EU, is SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The principle is simple: If you have a lot of money, you can pay for a lot of lawyers and bully people and organizations that don’t have these sorts of resources. They don’t even have to win, just make life hard for journalists, sometimes driving them into debt.

“Vomitus spewing of offensiveness”

This is how Elaine Cobbe, from the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, described the way journalists are treated online. As she pointed out, emotional trauma can come from being confronted with difficult situations journalists sometimes witness as part of their job. But day-to-day online harassment can also take a toll.

She and Tom Gibson, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, made the point that women and non-binary journalists face much more of this harassment. This is especially true because pretty much every autocratic ruler first targets the media in an attempt to silence anyone who would hold them accountable, and female journalists are often their first targets. UNESCO found that 73% of women journalists participating in their survey have experienced online violence in the course of their work.

Should we give up hope?

With journalists facing this range of threats in countries all around the world, many media organizations struggling financially, and an increasingly polarized media landscape, what can be done?

One hopeful sign is that many journalists and media organizations now see each other more as collaborators than competitors. For example, it was a major collaboration across media companies that exposed the use of Pegasus software to spy on journalists (as well as activists and politicians).

Another key solution raised by Cobbe is awareness:
  • Awareness among journalists about dangers (and opportunities to get help)
  • Awareness among newsroom editors, also about the risk of burnout
  • Awareness of politicians and leaders about how both their words and actions can help or harm
  • Awareness by the public about the value of good journalism in a landscape flooded with misinformation.
Aside from that, there is a range of solutions needed, and the organizations present proposed several different strategies for the aforementioned groups.

Jantine van Herwijnen, from Free Press Unlimited, shared how they use the ‘3 P’s’ framework: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution. They work to prevent attacks on journalists (by changing laws and defusing threats); protect journalists at risk (with training, equipment, etc.); and encourage prosecution of people and organizations that harm journalists.

Several of the organizations present have already teamed up to collaborate. For example, Free Press Unlimited and Reporters Without Borders are working together with others to supply personal protective gear such as bullet proof vests and training to journalists reporting on the Ukraine war.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also provides direct assistance when journalists are in trouble. According to Tom Gibson, there are many legal structures already in place in the EU that could be made more use of, if there was the political will to do so.

What about World Press Photo?

World Press Photo is a small organization, but we’re committed to supporting press freedom. We do this by:

  • Showcasing some of the world’s best and most important photojournalism and documentary photography.
  • Promoting the importance of press freedom through our exhibitions and events like these.
  • Supporting photographers with training, recognition and advice.
  • Educating the public on visual literacy and helping them spot misinformation.

Are we playing the right role already? Or should we shift our focus to other tactics? Tell us on Twitter, Facebook or by email

Image credits: European Union 2022