It has been a ghastly year for the media, as we look back on World Press Freedom Day. Headlines are filled with gruesome attacks, notably the beheadings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, and Kenji Goto, and the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo.
The deaths of Foley and Sotloff, both kidnapped by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) while working as freelance reporters in Syria, prompted reporters and advocates to create voluntary guidelines for media outlets to work more safely with freelancers in conflict areas.
More than 60 news organizations and press freedom groups have signed on, along with the Frontline Freelance Register, which represents more than 400 independent journalists. All have committed to uphold safety practices, including providing insurance, protective gear, and first aid and hostile environment training. It’s a positive first step – we need journalists to report impartially from dangerous places and as a result of shrinking news budgets and changing technologies, many of those covering the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are freelancers without the resources available to staff correspondents.
The largest group providing information and those most at risk in war zones, however, are probably local journalists or citizen journalists who feed information to reporters or distribute it via social media. In Syria they’re targets of the government and ISIS and other rebel factions; dozens have been killed or detained.
We know the name and face of the British photojournalist John Cantlie, still held by ISIS, but local media and human rights groups estimate that ISIS has abducted more than 20 Iraqi journalists and media workers and is reported to have publicly executed Thaer Ali, a newspaper editor, in Mosul a week ago by firing squad. Iraqi journalists have told us of threats from officials and militia members, and the subsequent chilling effect on their work.
One of those the Syrian government holds is Mazen Darwish, president of the Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). He and his colleagues Hussein Gharir and Hani Zaitani were arrested in February 2012 and charged with “publicizing terrorist acts” – for peacefully documenting human rights abuses. Their trial date was recently postponed for a 22nd time
Many governments use bogus charges to harass, intimidate, and punish journalists and others who speak out, including in Azerbaijan, China, Ethiopia, Iran, and Vietnam. Over the past 25 years, the Hellman-Hammett program, administered by Human Rights Watch and celebrated in its magazine, has made grants to more than 800 writers at risk. Almost half were imprisoned at the time.
Without accurate, independent reporting we won’t know how governments abuse power. Without scrutiny, tyrants and terrorists can operate freely, and that hurts us all.