Three cheers for independent journalism: but how can we keep it?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week, the 12th journalist to be killed in Ukraine since Putin’s invasion of the country in February 2022 died in the Donbas region. The journalist was Arman Soldin, a 32-year-old video coordinator who worked for the French news agency, AFP. He was struck by a Russian Grad rocket. Many European leaders and fellow journalists, not only in his home country of France, saluted Soldin’s courage, professionalism and the risks he had accepted to convey the daily front-line reality of the Ukraine war to AFP’s audiences.

Soldin’s tragic death was another reminder of the debt we owe to reporters and journalists who serve as our eyes and ears in telling the stories of those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the world’s conflicts, humanitarian crises, natural disasters and political violence. Governments like to frame the narrative from the top down, often in abstract ideological terms, such as morality, justice and national honour or competition for power and influence, but journalists give us the bottom-up perspective of what is happening on the ground and the impact of these geopolitical forces on ordinary people. In an age of spin and powerful government information campaigns and propaganda, these journalists attempt to break through official narratives or the fog of war and offer a sense of perspective necessary to make sense of confusing and fast-moving events. They hold governments to account by exposing the gap between rhetoric and reality or by revealing corruption, incompetence, malfeasance or just sheer hypocrisy in those who are entrusted with the duty of public service. The fact-checking services that newspapers like The New York Times and Le Monde provide are ever more essential in an age when social media is full of disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. Finally, good on-the-spot journalism can shake all of us out of our daily comfort zones and natural tendency to be indifferent to the plight of our fellow human beings. By being told inconvenient truths and confronted with things we would rather not see, we are reminded of our common humanity and ultimate duty of care towards each other.

Media pressure can also induce governments and others in positions of power and responsibility to raise their game and be more open and honest about their policies and activities, and thus more willing to admit mistakes and undertake course corrections. As NATO Spokesman during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I frequently faced a sceptical, if not hostile, media demanding faster and more accurate information on NATO’s military operations, and not simply ‘master messages’ about NATO’s political objectives or about having right on our side. It was an uncomfortable experience but this media pressure obliged NATO to make its media operation much more professional and to respond faster to media queries with more reliable, factual information and to provide more access to decision-makers and senior officials. The Media Operations Centre that NATO set up during its Kosovo campaign in 1999 to improve the coordination between NATO HQ and the member states, rebut disinformation, and gather and check operational information before releasing it to the media remains a model used by governments, international organisations and major companies to this day. It was not perfect and journalists eager for immediate information, insights, newsworthy quotations on the record and scoops are a difficult bunch to satisfy. But it was a big improvement on what had gone on before. Overall, my time as NATO Spokesman gave me enormous respect for the work that journalists do to understand global events, establish the facts and report as fairly and as objectively as possible. Of course, they are not all Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters nor brilliant writers and observers of events, but the majority of those that I came across put the quest for the truth and a sense of public service before their own political or ideological beliefs and biases.

This makes it all the more disturbing to learn that journalists are increasingly vulnerable and not only in conflict zones. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an NGO based in New York, publishes an annual report on those journalists killed, wounded or otherwise harmed and persecuted trying to do their jobs. According to the CPJ, between 1992 and 2023, 2,197 journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty, many of them directly targeted. Marking the UN’s annual World Press Freedom Day last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres said that “press freedom is under attack in every corner of the globe”.

Journalists are fast becoming an endangered species

Some of the journalists killed in recent years are famous names and the recipients of prestigious awards for their reporting: Wall Street Journal correspondent, Daniel Pearl, beheaded by jihadists in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002; Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin, assassinated in Homs, Syria in 2012; or the celebrated Reuters reporter on the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Kurt Schork, who was killed together with his cameraman, Miguel Gil Moreno, in an ambush in Sierra Leone in 2000. The death of the celebrated Palestinian reporter for Al Jazeera, Shireen Abu Akleh, in the crossfire between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank last year caused a major controversy, all the more so as no one has ever been held to account for her death or the other 20 journalists whose deaths have been attributed to Israeli troops since 2001.

These are the big names and the famous cases but this year’s report by the CPJ puts the spotlight on scores of other cases: Cameroonian journalist, Anye Nde Nsoh, shot by separatists; Indian reporter, Sakshi Joshi, assaulted and detained by the police while covering a women’s protest march; French journalist, Toufik de Planoise, arrested and charged while covering a demonstration; Pakistani journalist, Arshad Sharif, killed in Kenya; or Pakistani reporter, Gohar Wazir, abducted and electrocuted by his captors.

To this list we can add the host of instances in which foreign correspondents have been expelled from countries, even when properly accredited, or detained and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The BBC Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, was declared persona non grata by the Kremlin in 2021 and just a few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal’s Russia specialist, Evan Gershkovich, was arrested and imprisoned on charges of spying while investigating for a story on Russian war production. The Kremlin’s aim here seems to be to seize a high-value American to exchange later on for a Russian asset imprisoned in the United States. Just last week, Raman Pratasyevich was sentenced to eight years in Belarus.

Similar stories have emerged from China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian states in recent times but also countries professing adherence to Western democratic standards such as Georgia or Turkey. Even within the EU, which seems to be the guardian of liberal values, there have been two high-profile cases of journalists being assassinated by organised crime while investigating corruption – Daphe Caruana Galizia in Malta and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia. Journalists are fast becoming an endangered species.

When journalists are killed in combat zones, it is often not easy to determine whether their deaths are accidental or the result of deliberate targeting

This raises the question of what EU governments and their like-minded partners elsewhere in the world should do to better protect journalists and free media. News organisations that send their reporters into war zones or dangerous foreign countries have a duty of care towards their employees and need to evaluate the risks and take out insurance. Quality reporting will always involve personal courage, commitment to seeing and observing at first hand and the acceptance of risk. News organisations run courses in hostage-taking and train their staff in personal safety measures. Reporters can access local intelligence, hire bodyguards and often seek the protection of the military forces alongside whom they operate. Yet the freedom of the press is so intrinsic to liberal democracy that governments cannot leave it to the journalists and their employers alone but have to take action as well.

One way is to keep the spotlight on journalists who have been detained and push repeatedly for their release. Too often governments only act at the prodding of NGOs and human rights groups. It is important to raise the costs for regimes that abuse independent journalists. Publicity and diplomatic pressure are, of course, useful but stronger measures are required; for instance, counter-measures such as tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists working for state media or restrictions on the operations of state media from the offending countries. Economic sanctions or restrictions on the movement of officials from the offending countries can also come into play, especially where arresting journalists is manifestly being used for purposes of political manipulation and intimidation as in the case of Evan Gershkovich. Western governments must also denounce firmly laws and regulations that oblige foreign news organisations to register as ‘foreign agents’ as if they are flimsy covers for intelligence gathering and influence campaigns. It may be impossible to persuade Russia to change its draconian law in this area, but when it is a country where the EU and US do have considerable influence, as was the case recently with Georgia, which proposed a similar law that provoked mass protests, they need to send a clear message.

When journalists are killed in combat zones, it is often not easy to determine whether their deaths are accidental or the result of deliberate targeting. Journalists wear logos on their clothing clearly indicating that they are media representatives. We need an international convention pledging all governments to carry out proper and thorough investigations in circumstances where journalists meet violent deaths in their territories and report the findings in full to a UN panel, which can verify the credibility of the conclusions reached. These reports should then be made public so that the court of public opinion can judge whether the governments have done a fair and proper job. Too often these investigations are cursory and inevitably conclude that the other side is to blame or that it is impossible to determine who fired the deadly shot. Cases are rapidly closed, no compensation is paid to the families of the victims and we all move on to the next incident.

Numerous prizes for journalism or scholarships and bursaries named after the assassinated journalists help to keep their memories alive. An important step was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Filipino and a Russian journalist in 2021. Both Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov had faced threats and harassment at the hands of their governments. The award both highlighted the dangers facing the free press but also helped to give some degree of protection to the two journalists by raising their profile on the international stage. The EU could do the same by instituting an annual prize for distinguished journalism along the lines of the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen, which seems mainly destined for political leaders. On UN World Press Freedom Day, the EU could encourage all its 27 member states to hold their own national events where governments, media owners, editors, journalists and NGOs could debate the situation of the free press in the countries as well as internationally.

For the EU to champion press freedom and media diversity, it has to uphold these values within the Union itself before it goes preaching to others

Another step in upholding press freedom is to restrict the space for authoritarian state media to undermine independent journalism by spreading lies and propaganda. The credo of the Russian international TV station, RT, for instance, is to claim that it is serving viewers by exposing facts and truth that Western governments are deliberately trying to hide. The motto of RT is that “there is always another side of the story” and that it gets the blame unfairly for doing the same job as Western media in holding governments to account. These arguments are specious and disingenuous. RT has been closed down in some EU countries because it fails to meet minimum journalistic standards. In the United Kingdom, it has been fined repeatedly by the Press Complaints Commission for failing to correct false claims and reporting, as well as for indulging in numerous conspiracy theories. As part of its latest package of sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, the EU has devised a common set of benchmarks for member states to use in handling Russian state media. It would now be useful to apply the same benchmarks in the G7, meeting in Japan this week, and as many like-minded democracies around the globe as possible. As Russian disinformation is part of its hybrid warfare against the West, it is only right that Western democracies try to protect themselves and not allow propaganda machines financed by hostile states to masquerade as traditional media organisations. Some may think that such regulation might induce China or Russia to retaliate against Western media organisations making independent reporting in those countries even more difficult. But these restrictions have already been imposed by China and Russia long before the war in Ukraine. Already over a decade ago China blocked BBC World TV and expelled a New York Times correspondent and Russia imposed restrictions on Deutsche Welle.

Helping independent Russian and Belarusian media to survive and to continue to broadcast is also important in the current climate. Lithuania and the Netherlands have offered a home to TV Rain, the last independent TV channel to operate in Russia. The Baltic states and Poland have welcomed many Russian and Belarusian journalists fleeing restrictions or even persecution at home. Others have found a place at Radio Free Europe in Prague or in other Western media broadcasting to the East in local languages such as the BBC World Service. Of course, it is not easy for these journalists in exile to reach former audiences in their home countries, even if the online media world is more accessible to Russians and Belarusians than the traditional terrestrial media, now fully controlled by the state. For instance, Telegram and YouTube continue to operate quite freely in Russia. But by keeping these channels alive, the West is helping to ensure that the building blocks of an independent, free but also professional media are secured for when political change in Minsk or Moscow finally allows them to return home.

For the EU to champion press freedom and media diversity, it has to uphold these values within the Union itself before it goes preaching to others. The EU’s performance here is patchy. In several member states, such as France and Italy, a few media moguls own large swathes of the audio, visual and print media. The same applies in the UK with Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Libel and privacy laws can be (mis)used by the privileged to go to the courts and obtain judgments that muzzle the press and prevent disclosures. Inadequate freedom of information acts, the over-classification of government papers or attempts by governments to force journalists to reveal their confidential sources can inhibit press freedom as well. So, it would be useful for the Commission to try to harmonise standards among the 27 member states when it comes to giving the press a level playing field. Fortunately, the Commission is taking up this challenge.

Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vĕra Jourová has inserted a Code of Practice on Disinformation into the EU Digital Services Act. Now with fellow Commissioner, Thierry Breton, she is proposing a European Media Freedom Act to better regulate the media space and ensure that it remains open and competitive. Provisions would include preventing political parties from using media as parry propaganda organs, more transparency regarding media ownership and financing particularly of public service broadcasting. It also regulates the use of the media for state or political advertising especially seeking to misinform voters during election campaigns, prevents surveillance or spying of journalists and seeks to set up an EU coordinating body of national media regulators. Finally, the act seeks to protect editorial independence from the interference of media owners or governments. In addition, the Commission is proposing a law against what is called SLAPPs or strategic lawsuits against public participation. These are vexatious practices that are used by governments or companies and individuals to stop the press from publishing or disclosing information or identities. Through these various initiatives, the Commission is gradually acquiring legal jurisdiction over press freedom in the EU, whereas just a few years back some EU member states, such as Poland, argued vociferously that this was purely a national affair.

The Commission needs to consider what the EU can do to help media financially

The Commission has also given considerable support to the media in Ukraine to the tune of €5mn before the war and €7mn since to strengthen Ukrainian public broadcasting. It has worked closely with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and Reporters without Borders on the ground to train Ukrainian journalists and provide them with equipment.

Yet perhaps the major problem lies in the financing of independent quality media. As social media have taken away advertising revenue from traditional media, the business models of many of the latter have been badly shaken. In the US, Buzzfeed and Vice News, two digital platforms celebrated for their fresh approach and heavy foreign news content, have folded. In Europe, Euronews is carrying out major redundancies. Many newspapers, particularly of the local and regional variety, have disappeared, depriving citizens of local news and content. It is not all bad news as the traditional media have moved into the digital media realm with some success. The New York Times now has 10mn digital subscribers and is planning to double that number over the next five years. The Financial Times has successfully gone digital as well and like Politico makes money by organising multiple business seminars, briefings and side events. Yet the simple fact is that modern media platforms are often loss-making ventures. So, quality journalism that requires time, deep research and fact-checking suffers at the hands of personality news and ‘news you can use’ lifestyle tips. The Commission needs to consider what the EU can do to help media financially, for instance, through tax breaks or by using tax revenue from social media as the EU extracts it from tech companies to subsidise independent traditional media.

Finally, a free press needs public trust and polls show that this has declined in Europe in recent years and even more precipitously in the United States. Journalists rank with politicians and second-hand car salesmen near the bottom of popularity rankings. So, the media has to police itself and hold itself to its proclaimed high standards. In the UK, to zoom in on just one country, newspapers like the Daily Mail or The Sun have been repeatedly in court, charged with the illegal phone hacking of royalty and celebrities to obtain salacious stories. Journalists have dressed up as Arab sheikhs to trick celebrities into making embarrassing indiscretions about their nearest and dearest or pretended to be businessmen, making attractive offers to politicians to intervene on their behalf. Newspapers like the Daily Mail have called anti-Brexit judges “enemies of the people” in bold front-page headlines simply for upholding the law and the constitution. The New York Times has been rattled by the case of a journalist who made up stories and the former UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, was fired from The Times earlier in his career for making up quotations. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” was his instant retort. More recently, the editor of a German weekly magazine was fired after the magazine published a fake interview with the former Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher, entirely written by artificial intelligence. The litany of the press shooting itself in the foot could go on for a long time; it cannot and should not overshadow all the important and brilliant reporting of intrepid journalists from one year to the next. But the sense of a media making its own rules and using cynical underhand methods for the sake of sensationalism undermines the public trust necessary to give it a special status and treatment in the name of democracy.

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions a statistic”, the cynical Joseph Stalin once proclaimed. Yet there is some truth to this statement in the sense that the best passport into a much wider and more multifaceted subject can often come from what the French call a fait divers – a single, seemingly isolated incident. That has certainly been the case with the death last week on a Ukrainian battlefield of Arman Soldin. A tragic death indeed but also a lesson to us and a timely reminder of all we owe to the freedom of the press and how we would suffer were we to lose that freedom. George Orwell probably put it best and this quotation of his is on a plaque at the entrance to the BBC in London: “If Liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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