Rule of law key to journalists' survival in global 'war for truth'
MANILA, Philippines – Journalists around the world face different threats to press freedom.
In Turkey, for example, many journalists are in jail while media outlets have been closed down. In Pakistan, major social media platforms are being used to malign independent journalists. And in the Philippines, cases are filed against journalists critical of the government.
How can we protect journalists in countries where there is a continuing climate of fear and intimidation?
During a panel session at the International Journalism Festival on April 5, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar cited a key factor "for keeping our sector alive and profession alive."
"Media journalism stands, rises, prevails, and flourishes on the basis of rule of law and independent judiciary. And this is the most important lesson that we learned in Turkey. If that starts crackling and starts falling down, collapsing, there's no way to protect not only journalists but journalism per se; it's gone. Now in Turkey, with total collapse of rule of law, we have no way of returning, it seems irreversible," he added.
Panelist Baydar, the Editor-in-Chief of independent online news site Ahval, said it is clear that the world has entered the age of "political mafia."
"The politics worldwide as we know is now falling prey to mafia formats. All the leaders that we see in America, South or North, or in parts of Europe, parts of Southeast of the globe – really, the way they talk, the way they treat any sort of dissent or the way they negotiate with each other, the way they tweet to each other, the way they demonize the media," he said.
Pakistani journalist and Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas said the scene has changed in Pakistan in the last couple of decades, with authorities now "killing journalism" instead of journalists.
"In the last couple of years, the level of killings has gone down drastically. Various explanations are given – because the militants are on the run, because the situation has improved in the country – but many of us feel that as Maria [Ressa] talked about, weaponizing social media and other actions taken by the authorities or even the militant organizations, extremist organizations. Is that why go for killing journalists at all when the easy way out is to kill journalism?"
Abbas said that in his country, authorities have made independent journalism "very vulnerable" by using social media platforms to question the patriotism and independence of journalists "day in and day out."
"Even my colleagues on a daily basis ask whether it's okay to write this line, whether this phrase is alright, whether we'll end up annoying another state authority and there'll be another vicious attack on social media," he explained.
Abbas added: "When my colleagues who in the past had complete freedom to decide what to publish and what not to publish constantly turn towards me asking me questions what to publish and what not to publish, that, in some ways, is the victory of the people who are trying to destroy journalism in Pakistan."
'A war we cannot lose'
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa said the "war for truth…is a war we cannot lose in democracies" like the Philippines.
She said to protect journalists, there must be a recognition first that social media warfare takes a toll especially when they target journalists.
"For us, maybe two years ago when we realized, when we first did…a propaganda series in mid-2016, we offered counseling to our social media team, to our reporters on the frontline – frontline now being in the virtual world. This is psychological warfare, it is something that you go to sleep with; you wake up with it," Ressa explained.
Ressa said it is also important to know when the attacks in the virtual world move into the real world.
She cited an incident last February when supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte sneaked into the Rappler headquarters to condemn the media organization for allegedly destroying the country's image before the world.
The supporters even did a Facebook Live as they trespassed on Rappler premises. Facebook later took down the post, while Rappler increased its security after the incident.
"Here's the thing that I think is difficult: We have to talk about this like this is a new problem, because it is. It's a new threat…. This is happening right now, and I don't think this is something journalists alone can fix. This is why I run and do a lot of work with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. It's extremely important that the new gatekeepers drain the swamp," Ressa added.
Aside from securing journalists, Baydar also warned journalists not to take "institutional security" for granted.
"In terms of institution security, what happened was, many of those critical media outlets as institutions were shut down, their entire archives were deleted. Newspapers like for example Taraf which doesn't exist anymore, their archives are gone. All the columns, news analysis, articles, editorials are gone. Of course, they weren't careful about it, they didn't expect it to go that far," he shared.
Baydar said destroying institutional memories is a "barbaric way of dealing with the memory of the sector, of our profession."
Amid all these threats against press freedom, Abbas is still hopeful that journalists will win in the end. He urged international media organizations to continue expressing their support for journalists at risk.
"Authorities don't want to be named and shamed internationally. So my suggestion always to all my colleagues who work for international organizations, human rights organizations is that please do not think these are just small statements," Abbas said.
"Keep issuing these statements, keep expressing these concerns, keep writing to the authorities in these countries and they will feel the pressure that the international community is aware of what is going on in these countries, and someday when we continue to fight – I keep telling my colleagues it's a good fight and we will continue to fight it. Someday, we are going to win," he added. – Rappler.com