When an Egyptian court convicted Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed this week on trumped up charges and with no evidence against them worth the name, the internet, quite rightly, exploded. Twitter, in particular, quickly became a hotbed of outrage, with journalists all over the world expressing their solidarity with a series of hashtags — “#FreeAJStaff”, “#journalismisnotacrime” — visual memes and online petitions. Courtney Radsch (@courtneyr), advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom), put the verdict, the online reaction to it and its consequences for foreign and local reporters into context.
“These convictions are highly politicised and are wrapped up in the geopolitics of the region,” Radsch told Crikey, “specifically the conflict between Egypt and Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, over support for the Muslim Brotherhood. CPJ is seriously concerned about the chilling effect that such a politicised ruling has for the press in Egypt as the country undergoes a critical transitional period.
“Whether or not the imprisonments change the calculus of Western powers in their relationship with Egypt, a regional power, remains to be seen. But CPJ is certainly working to ensure that this issue is firmly ensconced on the US and other Western countries’ agendas.”
Radsch said that the online response to the verdict could play an important role on this front, especially if it remains as virulent in the coming weeks as it has been over the past few days.
“Symbolic gestures like tweeting pictures of journalists with their mouths taped shut or using the hashtag #journalismisnotacrime are important awareness-raising tools,” Radsch said. “They help to underscore — to Egyptian officials as well as to policymakers at home — the fact that the world is watching.
“We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials, whether in Australia, the US, Canada or the UK, to ensure that they raise the issue of the journalists’ imprisonment in their conversations with Egyptian officials and advocate for their release. They need to factor this into all aspects of their relationship with the country. Egypt should not be permitted to normalise its international relationships as long as it imprisons journalists.”
While the conviction of the Al Jazeera journalists has galvanised the international media community, Egypt is by no means the only country CPJ is currently concerned about. From Iran to Ethiopia, Turkey to China, journalists are languishing in prison, being murdered with impunity and in general being targeted for simply trying to do their jobs.
“Ethiopia is currently experiencing one of the worst crackdowns on freedom of expression anywhere in the world,” Radsch said. “In April, nine journalists, known as the Zone 9 Bloggers, were jailed as part of an ongoing repression of independent journalists and news outlets. This comes ahead of the 2015 election amid a broader crackdown on dissent and opposition voices and independent NGOs.”
“We are also concerned about the ongoing imprisonment of journalists in Turkey — despite some recent releases — and attempts to block critical communication platforms such as Twitter. Turkey’s attempts to stifle internet freedom are especially concerning, and one might even say ironic, given that the country is set to host the UN Internet Governance Forum in September.”
Syria — and now Iraq — are of particular concern, Radsch said. Of the 70 journalists killed with a confirmed motive last year, 49 were killed in the Middle East, accounting for 70% of journalist murders worldwide.
“Syria alone accounted for 55% of killings in the region last year,” Radsch said. “Iraq accounted for 20%. Additionally, Syria has seen more than 80 local and international journalists abducted since the conflict began in 2011, according to CPJ research, with approximately 25 still missing as of May 15. Abductions act as a deterrent to international media organisations, meaning they increasingly have to rely on freelance or citizen journalists to cover one of the most dangerous conflicts of the century.”
Twitter plays a crucial role in CPJ’s project, Radsch said, and indeed the organisation’s use of social media in general is innovative.
“Twitter is an important tool for reaching out to and engaging with a global audience,” Radsch said.
“This is one of the reasons we maintain multiple accounts,” she said. “Regional accounts enable us to engage with journalists in specific regions in greater depth about issues of importance to them, and in languages other than English. Furthermore, since each regional team is responsible for their own accounts, they can use Twitter to conduct research, investigate cases and attacks, and expand our reach on a platform that has become a central part of the practice of contemporary journalism.”
CPJ’s latest social media project commemorates the five-year anniversary of Iran’s 2009 post-election crackdown and represents one of the various ways in which the organisation is using the medium.
“We are extremely concerned about the ongoing imprisonment of Iranian journalists,” Radsch said.
“We have been running a social media campaign on Twitter calling for an end to the crackdown on the press that began on June 12, 2009 and has resulted in a stunning 333% increase in the number of imprisoned journalists.”
“As part of the campaign, our @cpjmena account is looking back on key events from those three critical weeks, highlighting anti-press violations and attempts to discredit journalists as spies and foreign agents.”
CPJ has also partnered with Reporters Without Borders on social media campaigns. In April, the organisations launched Bahrain Racing in Circles, which was designed to promote press freedom in Bahrain during the country’s Formula One race.
“The campaign, which was timed to the starting gun of the race, used the hashtag #F1 to disseminate the following message,” Radsch said. “‘Whether they cover changing tires or burning tires, journalists must be allowed to work freely in Bahrain.'” The campaign reached 4.36 million people.
“I use my personal account to engage with topics and people in which I am interested,” Radsch said. “I use it to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in media and internet freedom, cyberactivism and technology.”
Not a lot of daylight, then, between Radsch’s personal account and CPJ’s?
“There’s a lot of overlap,” she said.
@courtneyr ‘s #FF:
This is challenging, because there are so many good accounts to follow, depending on the topic. But for press freedom, with some regional diversity, I would choose:
- Syria Deeply (@SyriaDeeply): an independent Syrian news outlet.
- Mada Masr (@MadaMasr): an independent English-language Egyptian news outlet.
- Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisanchez in Spanish and @yoanifromcuba in English): a Cuban journalist.
- Umar Cheema (@UmarCheema1): a Pakistani journalist.
- Dunja Mijatovic (@OSCE_RFoM): an OSCE representative on media freedom.
- PewResearch Journo (@pewjournalism) for interesting factoids.
On her career trajectory…
I started my career as a journalist with the Daily Star in Lebanon and then got a job with the New York Times, before leaving to pursue my doctorate exploring the political impact of cyberactivism in Egypt. I then went back into journalism when I took a job with the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news station as managing editor of its English website. A little over a year later I was “made redundant” — ie. fired — for an article I published on the English site about safety problems on Emirates Airlines. (On a side note, this was related to a 2008 crash in Australia.) So I was fired, my bank account frozen and my visa cancelled, giving me only 30 days to leave the country. I got a call the following day from Reporters Without Borders inquiring about my case, which was surprising because I had no idea how they got my phone number, and asking if they could write about it.
This was really my first introduction to the world of press freedom, and when I returned to the US I saw a job for a “freedom of expression officer” at the human rights NGO Freedom House. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity to transition out of journalism and into a new but related field. I worked for three years there building up the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign, and then went to Paris to work for UNESCO on the Freedom of Expression team. In April I joined CPJ as advocacy director because I wanted to be able to be more vocal and effective than I could be in the UN system. I feel like this is the perfect job and am excited to be at the leading international press freedom watchdog, which accepts no government funding and enjoys a tremendous reputation builton the credibility of our research.
On the CPJ’s various programs…
CPJ is probably best-known for our daily coverage of attacks on the press around the world and our tracking of cases in which journalists have been killed, imprisoned, exiled or gone missing. We also act as a news organisation, covering daily developments in press freedom and journalist safety around the world. We publish alerts, blogs and special reports that provide original, timely and in-depth reporting on these issues.
Additionally, CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program provides direct assistance to journalists at risk, as well as their families, all around the world. Our report on exiled journalists, Forced to Flee, was released on June 20, which is World Refugee Day, and highlights one critical aspect of our assistance program. Over the past year, CPJ has supported 42 journalists around the world who were forced to flee their country, with Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea responsible for the most cases of exile. They also happen to be among the most dangerous countries for journalists in terms of killings and imprisonments.
We also have a security guide for journalists that provides practical safety instruction and advice to journalists on how to protect themselves both physically and digitally. CPJ also conducts reporting and advocacy missions to countries in every region intended to investigate, raise awareness and hold officials accountable for improving the situation for journalists on the ground. In April, for example, we met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Brazil’s President and top officials from Iraqi Kurdistan to advocate for specific steps to combat impunity.
On impunity and CPJ’s Impunity Index…
CPJ’s Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free, calculating the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the country’s population. Impunity is an endemic and entrenched problem, with more than 90% of journalist killings going unpunished. And even in those cases where perpetrators are convicted, in too many cases the masterminds are never apprehended or convicted.
In Iraq, for example, where 100 cases were documented in the decade leading up to CPJ’s first publication of the Impunity Index, in 2008, the impunity rate is 100%. Syria appeared on the Index this year as the number in targeted killings rose and Somalia once again came in second worst with four new murders last year. While four countries on the Index — Philippines, Pakistan, Russia and Brazil — all achieved at least one conviction in a journalist murder case in recent months, the number of countries on the 2014 Index nevertheless grew to 13 from 12.
With respect to the recent conviction of journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s killers in Russia — a country that ranks 10th on the 2014 Impunity Index — CPJ welcomed the sentencing of the killers but believes that true justice will only be achieved when the masterminds of the murder are brought to justice.