Power of the pen: endangered

When journalists are murdered only 14 per cent of cases are solved, according to a UNESCO report released last month. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has reported that 16 media workers have been killed so far in 2023. These statistics have sparked conversations about how the protection of journalists can be improved.

The UNESCO report, called The Role of Law Enforcement Agents: Strengthening Investigations into Crimes Against Journalists, concluded that crimes against journalists require independent investigators from outside sources. But some experts believe journalists are still under threat, even with independent investigators.

Reporters Without Borders Australian correspondent Joseph Fernandez said: “While it should be a ‘no brainer’ that journalists performing their professional duties should not be the target of crime, those with enforcement responsibilities are sometimes beholden to the very governments that oppress freedom of speech.”

Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom executive director Peter Greste spoke about his experience of arbitrary detention in Egypt, explaining how important outside investigators are. In his case, “it was the government who was the perpetrator, the investigator and the prosecutor.”

According to Dr Fernandez, the UNESCO report highlighted serious inadequacies in how law enforcement currently responds to crimes against journalists, showing that in the last 15 years, 86 per cent of cases went unresolved.

The UN currently has the ‘three Ps’ plan to help protect journalists: protection, prevention, and prosecution. However, with threats to journalists’ safety increasing, the question remains if an internationally recognised symbol of protection would be beneficial. According to Professor Greste and the Journalism Education and Research Association (Australia) president Alexandra Wake, the answer is no.

Dr Wake said: “You put a sign of PRESS on you, and you are likely to be targeted.”

Greste explained that, particularly the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, journalists are already being targeted and a symbol may just exacerbate that.

It’s not just foreign correspondents in hostile environments experiencing increased crimes committed against journalists, it’s also people in democracies like Australia.

Dr Wake said: “Journalists are being abused every day; you don’t need to live in another country to experience that.

“In authoritarian countries, it has always been a problem, but my concern is with countries who claim to be democratic and behave in ways that are problematic. That to me is a bigger issue.”

Dr Wake and Professor Greste believe crimes committed against journalists correlate with reduced freedom of speech. Journalists are the watchdogs’ of society and when they are suppressed journalists struggle to tell the stories that need to be heard. 

According to the Press Freedom Index, Australia’s press freedom is fragile, it ranks Australia 27th out of 180 countries. This ranking is because of Australia’s concentration of media ownership and political pressure which endangers public interest journalism.

“The more you see press freedom undermined, the tougher it is for journalists to do their jobs; the more unstable democracy becomes,” Professor Greste said. 

Dr Fernandez agreed and said: “Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and it is firmly enshrined in the governing instruments of democratic societies.”

The solution to decreasing the crimes committed against journalists is unclear, however, Professor Greste believes it correlates to protecting freedom of speech and democratic structures. 

He said: “Journalism should be seen as a part of the architecture of a democracy. It is not something that is a threat to it and that makes it something that deserves protection, not just from the government but also from the public.”

According to Professor Greste and Dr Wake, an effective free media exposes government failure and keeps the democratic system honest. However, Dr Fernandez recognises “freedom of speech must always strike a balance with other interests – it does not enjoy limitless protection. Speech that leads to harm will naturally attract limits.”