by John Cian McGrath
Reporters Without Borders is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to promoting and defending freedom of information. Thanks to its network of active correspondents in over 150 countries, Reporters Without Borders strives daily to maintain a free press in every corner of the globe. Registered in France as a non-profit organization, it has consultant status at the United Nations and UNESCO. This week, I spoke to Rebecca Vincent from the UK Bureau to discuss the modern challenges facing journalistic freedom and how you can get involved in protecting it.
Rebecca is a Human Rights campaigner, who got involved in RSF in September 2016, opening their first office in the UK, which now liaises globally with the other branches of the organisation. She had always taken a keen interest in RSF, saying that she was taken by the creativity and style of the work done by the group.
In an ever-evolving world, the threats that face journalists are changing too. Despite a reduction in the number of journalists killed last year (49), there has been an increase in deaths in countries which are supposedly at peace, with 63% of deaths being intentional according to RSF. Aside from physical threats, there has also been an evident rise in digital threats to journalism. The rise of digital journalism has also meant that RSF have widened the umbrella of people that they protect, including more and more citizen journalists.
Rebecca and RSF are also very active in the North of Ireland, with particular attention being given to the case of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey and also to that of Lyra McKee. RSF have been vocal, releasing a statement on February 13th welcoming progress in the investigation of the murder of McKee, saying-
“We welcome this important step towards justice for the senseless killing of Lyra McKee. No journalist should face the threat of violence in doing their job – not in the UK, and not anywhere. All those responsible for this heinous attack must be brought to justice, and better protections must be put in place to ensure the safety of journalists working throughout the country.”
Rebecca also expressed concern as to the freedom of the press in the North and the United Kingdom. She likened recent developments within the UK’s government to similar ones which were seen in the Trump administration in terms of reducing the access of the press:
“We’re quite worried at the moment with some of the behaviour of the new government [in the UK]. We commented recently on actions taken by Downing Street to restrict participation of journalists in the press briefings.
That’s concerning, it’s really reminiscent of early Trump administration behaviour where the White House started restricting who had access to press briefings and now we are at a state where the White House doesn’t even have press briefings anymore so we’re concerned by the signal that is being sent very early on in this new administration.”
Having chatted about this, I asked what may come next in the restriction of the freedom of the press in the United Kingdom. Rebecca was clear in her concern of what may come next and the severity of what may come if it is not addressed:
“We’re also currently really concerned about attacks on public service media in the UK, in particular the BBC. There has been threatening language used towards Channel 4 as well and we are really keen to emphasise the importance of public service media to democracy.
The BBC in particular is such an international standard setter in that regard they are on of the most respected and widely referenced public broadcasters in the world. We are extremely concerned by moves against them at the moment and this is something that we are raising at the moment in a UK context.”
One of the most notable active cases to which RSF is lending its proficiency is that of the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States:
“We’re very active on the case of Julian Assange. On the 24th of February his extradition hearing starts in London, so the United States will be arguing to have extradited from the UK to the US where he is facing 18 charges. 17 of these are under the problematic ‘Espionage Act’ and the other is related to hacking. While we don’t consider Mr Assange a journalist, but he has engaged in journalistic activities and that is why he has been targeted.
We are really concerned that his targeting will set an extremely dangerous precedent for the treatment of journalistic sources, for persecution of whistle-blowers and many other areas related to journalism, so we defend him, and we will be very present at his extradition hearing.
We are calling for the UK not to comply with the US extradition request and act in the interest of freedom of expression. The UK is one example of a democracy where there are many issues of concern that we are also raising here. We’re stronger when we hold ourselves to the same standards and our policy makers to account, as we do in other countries”
RSF have also worked with Edward Snowden on his case and highlight his as another affront to the freedom of journalism and its importance in protecting the best interests of the public.
“It’s pretty black and white, he was a whistle-blower, he leaked information that was in the public interest and he leaked it to professional journalists that handled it as a professional journalist would. They published stories on the parts that were in the public interest and didn’t endanger sources. We defend Edward Snowden and we do defend Assange as well.”
Currently, Ireland is ranked in 15th place in the world for its press freedom, sitting below countries like Norway (1st), Switzerland (6th) and Germany (13th), but ahead of the United States (48th) and the United Kingdom (33rd). For those interested, Turkmenistan sit in last place (180th), just behind North Korea, Eritrea and China. Ireland’s position may initially seem excellent, but Rebecca tells me that there are still a variety of concerns with Irish Freedom of the Press, such as the high awards in defamation cases. She does however stress that strides are being made to tackle the issues, citing the abolition of the offence of blasphemy as a step in the right direction.
If you’re interested in helping with Freedom of the Press locally or nationally here in Ireland, Rebecca has the following advice:
“Grassroots action can be really effective here, if there are cases of concern or policy issues or laws of concern, write to your policy makers. This is one really concrete thing that people can do, write to the members of your parliament and encourage them to take action.
Keep your eye out for little movements or protests, reading and sharing things relevant on social media. These can be really effective small areas of activism. More generally, being aware and educated, speaking about these things where you can, even in your persona life. It’s a really worrying time for journalism and for press freedom. We need more attention to that, and awareness is the first step.”
Reporters sans Frontieres can be found on Twitter @RSF_inter, @RSF_en or at rsf.org