On World Press Freedom Day and journalists’ safety

Last week, I met a Cameroonian journalist who worked in the Congo until he fled following a series of threats and an attack on his home by armed men who assaulted his sister. Elie Smith, a TV host who documented alleged abuses by police and was outspoken in his criticism of the government, said he thought he had been under surveillance and that he had received multiple threats via text message.

How can journalism thrive when journalists are being attacked for exposing abuses and corruption? When they are being killed and imprisoned in record numbers? When they are caught in a terror dynamic in which they are targeted by militants and censored by states purporting to respond to terrorism?

Two days ahead of World Press Freedom Day, I find myself asking this question because the theme of this year’s official UNESCO-sponsored event is “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Media Safety in the Digital Age.” Fundamental to the theme is that safety for men and women is part and parcel of a flourishing environment for the media.

World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity for journalists, news organizations, and human rights groups around the world to focus for one day on that which forms the basis of so many other rights and freedoms. The press does not refer simply to printed news but rather the function that journalism plays in a society–holding those in power to account, shedding light on terrorist groups and drug cartels that prefer to remain in the shadows, and informing citizens about their rights and how to exercise them. That is one reason why CrowdRise and The Huffington Post, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this month, are featuring CPJ in their new campaign, “The Next 10”–highlighting our mission as one of the 10 causes that will shape the next decade.

As I write, I am headed to Latvia, where I will participate in the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day event and try to highlight the inseparability of physical and digital security for journalists working in the 21st century. Elie Smith’s case is emblematic–he reported being under surveillance before the attack and said his mobile phone was stolen by his assailants. From Beirut to Brussels, my colleagues will be focusing attention on the threats to journalism in Africa, press freedom in Europe, and new tools of repression in the Middle East.

On Wednesday, CPJ held an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit on the topic of fallen journalists. Journalists wrote asking where to get news industry-approved safety training and whether the threats to journalists in Syria, the most deadly country in the world for the press, extend to other places. Earlier in the week, we participated in a #muckedup Twitter chat on the same topic and got questions about resources for freelancers and about how people can help journalists under threat around the world. These questions underscore why the global safety principles and practices regarding freelancers, launched this year and endorsed by more than 60 media organizations and journalism groups, are critical. And why we translate resources like CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide into so many languages, including Farsi and Somali, so we can reach local journalists on the ground.

Such questions also highlight the growing recognition that journalism has become one of the most dangerous vocations in the world, where people are murdered just for carrying out their work. That’s why CPJ is supporting a moment of silence on May 3 as part of the #remembering fallen journalists campaign. And that is also why we have been highlighting the cases of nine imprisoned journalists with the Press Uncuffed: Free the Press campaign by students at the University of Maryland to raise awareness and take action. On May 4, the day after World Press Freedom Day, one of these journalists, Ammar Abdulrasool, will be in court to appeal his two-year sentence for participating in protests. You can add your voice to the growing chorus calling for his release.

For journalism to thrive, we have to cultivate the conditions in which journalists can report and work safely. We must enable the hundreds of journalists, like Elie, who have been forced into exile to escape threats and recrimination, to be able to return home.