Friday 20 September 2019

Mary Fitzgerald: 'Journalists find themselves in the line of fire as the 'war on truth' threatens liberal democracy'

Tribute: The ‘Time’ magazine cover featuring Jamal Khashoggi.
Tribute: The ‘Time’ magazine cover featuring Jamal Khashoggi.

Mary Fitzgerald

They stare out from the cover of 'Time' magazine's annual Person of the Year issue, their faces picked out in monochrome.

One - Jamal Khashoggi - is dead. Another - Maria Ressa - is hounded and threatened in the Philippines for shining an unwelcome light on the murky extra-judicial killings that have defined Rodrigo Duterte's presidency. A group portrait on another version of the magazine cover features colleagues of those killed in mass shooting at the 'Capital Gazette' newspaper in the US in June.

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What all have in common is they are journalists or "the Guardians" caught up in "the War on Truth" as 'Time' dubs them.

"This year we are recognising four journalists and one news organisation who have paid a terrible price to seize the challenge of this moment: Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and the 'Capital Gazette' of Annapolis, Maryland," writes 'Time' editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal. The selection, he continued, was particularly relevant given how press freedom is increasingly threatened across the world, including in the US.

"It has long been the first move in the authoritarian playbook: controlling the flow of information and debate that is freedom's lifeblood. And in 2018, the playbook worked.

"Today, democracy around the world faces its biggest crisis in decades," argues Felsenthal, describing the attempts to muzzle a free press and manipulate the truth "an insidious and growing threat to freedom".

Khashoggi, the 'Washington Post' columnist from Saudi Arabia who disappeared after he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, is held up by 'Time' as "the most visible representative of this harrowing year for truth". The shockwaves from Khashoggi's murder allegedly by a hit team from Riyadh continue and his body still has not been found.

The former Saudi insider turned critic is one of 80 media workers killed in 2018, according to press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF). That includes non-professionals and is a 7pc increase on last year. Two European journalists working in Europe - Slovak data journalist Jan Kuciak and Bulgarian TV journalist Victoria Marinova - were among the dead. More than half killed this year were deliberately targeted, according to RSF.

The organisation also noted that figures were up in all categories - murder, imprisonment, hostage-taking and enforced disappearance - in 2018, showing an "unprecedented level of hostility" towards media personnel. "Journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018," RWB warned.

The shooting at the 'Capital Gazette' - where five died after a man angry about how the paper had reported on him years ago opened fire - made the US the fourth-deadliest country in the world to be a journalist in 2018, tied with Mexico. The attack came amid a hostile environment for journalists in Donald Trump's America, with the president regularly accusing media outlets of "fake news" and his supporters branding them "enemies of the people".

Such rhetoric was once largely the preserve of autocrats. Today, as examples like Trump and Viktor Orban in Hungary show all too clearly, it is often voiced by democratically elected leaders.

"The hatred of journalists that is voiced, and sometimes very openly proclaimed, by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground, and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists," says RSF. "Amplified by social networks, which bear heavy responsibility in this regard, these expressions of hatred legitimise violence, thereby undermining journalism, and democracy itself, a bit more every day."

According to RSF, a total of 348 journalists found themselves in jail and 60 held hostage across the world this year.

Among them were two young Reuters reporters, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, who were imprisoned in Myanmar for reporting on the killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority now subjected to what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military. The wives of the incarcerated journalists are featured on 'Time' magazine's cover.

More than half of the media workers reported as imprisoned this year are being held in just five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. This year also witnessed a growing number of countries introduce controversial legislation on "fake news" that threatens press freedom because - as Trump has shown - the term "fake news" can mean anything a country's leader doesn't want reported.

Freedom of the press is a pillar of democracy inextricably linked with the public's right to know. With authoritarianism - both the common garden variety and the new type emerging from the so-called illiberal democracies - on the rise, no wonder journalists are increasingly threatened.

Irish Independent

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