NEW YORK – For journalists covering conflict, it’s been a roller-coaster ride this spring: from joy at the release of six colleagues kidnapped in Syria to despair over the murders in Afghanistan of three more. One of those freed from captivity in Syria was Javier Espinosa, correspondent for El Mundo; one of those killed in Afghanistan was Anja Niedringhaus, photojournalist from the AP – both had worked in Sarajevo during the 1992-5 siege.
Since World Press Freedom Day in 2013, at least 60 journalists have been killed because of their work, with Syria and Iraq as the most dangerous places. Of course Syrian journalists are at greatest risk – including the many “citizen journalists” and activists working to get information out about the fighting. International reporters have shown themselves willing to take the risks normally associated with covering conflict, but the very direct threats of kidnap have prompted many news organizations to reduce or end coverage inside Syria.
In December, more than a dozen international media companies wrote to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the opposition Free Syrian Army about the “increasingly common risk of abduction.” Because of the increased threat, they wrote, many outlets “have decided to limit their coverage of the war.” In response, the SMC promised to protect and support journalists, but said that most potential kidnappers were outside their control.
Media workers, including citizen journalists, are also being targeted by government forces and pro-government militias. Many have been arrested and detained arbitrarily, tortured or disappeared. More than 50 journalists have been killed during the three years of conflict because of their work, and at least 70 experienced Syrian journalists are reported to have fled the country.
So now many journalists are forced to work from a distance, interviewing refugees in border camps, or using technological tools – Skype, email, Facebook, YouTube, satellite imagery – to extract and verify information. This only increases the burden on local journalists to get the news out.
The dangers apply not only to journalists, but also to their sources, who may face threats or violent reprisal for giving interviews. This is true whether the meetings are conducted face to face or via phone or Internet – journalists need to take precautions to ensure the safety of their contacts.
Ukraine is the latest such danger zone, with increasing risks to local and international journalists and threats coming from both sides. Simon Ostrovsky of VICE news, one of several journalists detained by pro-Russia gunmen in eastern Ukraine, said he was targeted because of his reporting.
Others describe threats and beatings aimed at persuading them to amend their coverage. The weekly newspaper Novosti Sloviansk has suspended operations because of the danger, though journalists there still operate the SlovInfo online news site. Anti-Kiev protesters in Sloviansk forced two local television stations off the air, while in Kiev, anti-Russia activists forced the acting president of national Channel 1 to resign because of a live broadcast from Moscow. In both cases staff were threatened and abused.
Dunja Mijatovic, representative on media freedom at the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), has issued at least six news releases in the past month expressing concern about the situation in Ukraine. She also warned that “propaganda and deterioration of media freedom often go together to fuel a conflict, and once it starts they contribute to its escalation.”
The dangers in Ukraine reflect the critical importance of the media – each side is seeking to control which stories are reported and how. “Journalism plays a vital role in the balance of power between a government and its people,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted. “When a country's journalists are silenced, its people are silenced.” We all have the right to freedom of expression, which includes the rights seek, receive and impart information.
Of the 1,054 media workers killed since 1992, by CPJ’s count, 36 percent died during armed conflict, while 44 percent covered politics. Another 20 percent were investigating corruption, 18 percent worked on human rights abuses, and 15 percent on crime (some covered more than one beat.) Just last week, CPJ reported that two journalists were targets of planted bombs, in Cameroon and Peru.
The investigative reporter Denis Nkwebo said the car was parked outside his house in the commercial capital of Douala, and that no one was hurt in the explosion. In the Peruvian city of Barranca, a security video showed a masked person leaving an explosive device outside the home of Yofre Lopez Sifuentes, founder and editor of the newspaper and website Barranca. The bomb exploded, injuring his parents. “I thought people had broken into the house to kill us,” López told reporters in Barranca. “I believe this attack is due to the journalistic work we are doing. It appears that they want to silence us.”
Many governments use less deadly but no less illegal weapons to censor free speech. In April, Ethiopia jailed six bloggers and three journalists and Kazakhstan shut down one of the last independent papers in the country. Some governments simply censor media outlets, block Twitter and YouTube, or try (as in China and Iran) to control the Internet via a firewall; others use criminal defamation, counterterrorism and lese majeste laws to silence critics. Lately, Russia stands out for the speed and severity with which the government has cracked down on free speech, passing laws to restrict online media and ban negative coverage of the government and military, harassing and detaining dissidents and firing editors suspected of not toeing the line.
Another significant threat to a free press that has emerged in the past year is the mass surveillance exposed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who showed that the United States has collected and analyzed emails, phone calls and text messages from people around the globe. Trawling private messages from millions not suspected of wrongdoing is unlawful and unacceptable. And it sends a chill wind through those – like journalists – who have a particular (and legitimate) interest in keeping information secret from officialdom.
Human Rights Watch is researching the extent to which investigative reporters and other journalists are constrained by the fear of Big Brother watching as they try to uncover stories the US government might not like – and how this fear may be shaping the information that makes it to the front page.
When journalists are under surveillance by governments it undermines their ability to report accurately and to hold those in power to account. It also puts their sources at risk – the very same technology that allowed activists and citizen journalists to expose official corruption and abuse during the Arab Spring is used against them. And then we all suffer.
We won’t learn about the horrors in Syria, the crackdown in Russia, or the mass surveillance by the US, unless journalists can do their jobs. We are fortunate – most of us will not have to endure what Syrians are suffering – but we are entitled to know what is going on there. And that is crucial for ensuring that it never happens again.