World Press Freedom Day: Beware of dictatorial viruses

by Zelalem

One of the most stunning developments of the “internet age” is that nations’ may share more quickly the richness of their poets, artists, musicians and journalists – almost in a flash across cultures, geography, beliefs and political systems.

For journalists, the power of instant communication has created new and exciting ways to dispense vital news and analysis. With it have come heightened levels of danger journalists face worldwide.

Each year on World Press Freedom Day we hear the horrific stories of those endangered journalists. In addition to news, the internet brings us dispatches of attacks on journalists in disparate places but all with the same intent to silence those who report uncomfortable truths.

Colombian reporter Jineth Bedoya Lima wrote recently of her kidnapping and rape while pursuing a story; in Ethiopia, respected editor Eskinder Nega has been in prison since 2011 serving an 18-year term under the country’s repressive anti-terrorism act; and, in Egypt, reports come weekly of journalists arrested or disappeared.

Under pressure

On Press Freedom Day, we have the sad duty of commemorating the journalists killed each year. In 2015, 110 were murdered.

On this day, May 3, diplomats, United Nations officials, politicians, news executives and journalism advocacy groups all pledge to do better to protect journalists because we believe in the essential mission of journalism: To expose injustice, human rights violations and corruption. Then the day passes and the press of news goes on.

Ten years ago in a conversation with Elisabeth Witchel, then of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), we decided it was time to do something to assist journalists under attack.

American journalists are seldom murdered in the United States or put in prison to stop publication or the broadcast of a story.

Journalism in the US has its challenges, from government secrecy, anti-whistle-blower laws and the disruption of the advertising business model that has sustained it for several generations.

But it has been a rewarding life for most of us who came during the golden age of the 1980s and 1990s.

Freedom of expression, and in the heart of it press freedom, represents the natural immune system of any society. In human bodies, the first thing viruses target is the immune system. Exactly like in human bodies, dictatorships first target freedom of expression and more specifically press freedom.

Yehia Ghanem

What Witchel and I decided to do was work to combine the efforts of CPJ, the leading press freedom organisation in the country, and the public graduate school I taught at in New York City.

The International Journalist in Residence programme was born, granting one journalist a year a chance to recoup, reconstruct, revive and resuscitate their careers in exile. It has been the most rewarding effort I’ve undertaken in my journalism career.

Positive results

In the 10 years since, journalists have come to New York from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sri Lanka.

Some have come as refugees, some had served time in prison, some had little hope of ever working as a journalist again, some were being sought on trumped-up charges, and some hadn’t seen their families in months.

All were seeking the warm embrace of fellow journalists and journalism students, looking for a way to get back into what they loved most: reporting. Several are working as journalists now, but not in the countries of their birth.

On this World Press Freedom Day, there are some small encouraging signs. I first met Sonali Samarasinghe a short time after her husband had been assassinated on January 8, 2009, in his car on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on his way to work.

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Her husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was a well-known and influential editor of an independent newspaper that was particularly critical of the policies of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

His murder has still not been solved but suspicions have centred on the government in power at the time.

The next year, Samarasinghe was a Journalist in Residence at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. I recently talked with her about that time after her husband’s death.

“We felt hopeless,” she said of Sri Lankan journalists then. “We experienced the anguish of being under attack.”

Now a minister counsellor in the Sri Lankan mission in New York, Samarasinghe is working for the new president, Maithripala Sirsena, who was elected after the end of a horrific war with the Tamil Tigers.

She has been allowed back into the country recently after having to flee for her life in 2009. She is pleased that reporters have more freedom now and that Sri Lanka may adopt a Right to Information Act for the first time. “Press in Sri Lanka has really opened up. Certain groups that were on blacklists were removed.”

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Others have found their journalism niches here in their adopted country. Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an Iranian journalist and blogger, was the first of the journalists in residence.

He had spent time in Iran’s worst prison for his reporting when he arrived in New York. Now he and other Iranian journalists are reporting on events online for readers in Iran.

Others like Ethiopian Kassahun Yilma, a former reporter with Addis Neger, a newsmagazine that closed after government intimidation. Yilma is now working again as a journalist after spending his first months in the US doing manual labour. He is reporting on Ethiopia.

Dim picture

Sadly, this has not been the experience of all of the journalists in residence. Charles Kabonero, a Rwandan journalist charged by the government after investigating corruption, is in exile.

Agnes Taile, of Cameroon, used her own money to start a website and hire reporters in that country to cover issues ignored in the press there. She ran out of money.

Yehia Ghanem, the distinguished Egyptian journalist, was convicted of ridiculous charges after he attempted to set up a training programme for Egyptian journalists covering the 2012 election of Mohamed Morsi, whom the military deposed a year later.

Sign an Al Jazeera petition for journalists to protect themselves

Ghanem can’t go back to the Egypt that he speaks of so fondly and whose history he recites from memory. He is mocked in the government press and has not seen his family there since. Ghanem is writing a book about his ordeal.

At a World Press Day event at the United Nations two years ago before diplomats, aid workers and UN officials, Ghanem spoke eloquently of the struggle for journalism freedom in his country:

“Freedom of expression, and in the heart of it press freedom, represents the natural immune system of any society. In human bodies, the first thing viruses target is the immune system. Exactly like in human bodies, dictatorships first target freedom of expression and more specifically press freedom.”

Let us continue to feed and develop the press sectors of our countries to protect us from the dangers of contamination from whatever source.

Lonnie Isabel is a reporter, editor and journalism instructor who has covered US politics and foreign affairs for three decades.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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