As information overload makes it increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction, having news sources you can trust becomes ever more important. Reuters’ journalists know this better than most: the organisation’s entire brand is built on its trustworthiness. Reuters’ Trust Principles are hammered into its journalists from day one of joining and on pretty much a daily basis thereafter: having cut my professional teeth as a journalist at Reuters and spent more than a decade working there, I know this from personal experience.
But it was not just the personal connection that sent shivers down my spine when I heard the news that two Reuters journalists had each been sentenced to seven years in prison in Myanmar. The decision to jail Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for doing precisely what we expect of the best journalists – exposing wrongdoing by those in power – was a serious blow to all advocates of press freedom. Fearless, independent reporting is vital to democracy. The work by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating the killing by security forces of Rohingya villagers at the time of their arrest, is some of the toughest and most important of all.
These are dark days for media freedom. In the United States, the country’s most senior official spends most of his waking hours branding any media critical of him and his policies “fake news” or, even worse, “enemies of the people”. Meanwhile, leaders elsewhere have picked up Donald Trump’s fake news mantra to dismiss, or justify outlawing altogether, any press critical of the ruling party. Tarnishing all media with the same brush – as a profession of liars, spies and ne’er do wells – gives such leaders the perfect excuse for targeting those who uncover uncomfortable truths.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are 32 and 28 respectively. They face spending some of the most fruitful years of their careers behind bars. Wa Lone’s first child was born while he was on trial. She might be seven before he is freed. If we do not act now to reverse the growing threats to journalists worldwide, the world in which she grows up will be even bleaker. As the tagline to the Washington Post attests: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo bring light. They do so with great courage: without the security offered by an international passport and the democratic protection it can afford, local reporters risk far graver penalties than foreign correspondents.
This was clear in the treatment of three Al-Jazeera journalists arrested in Egypt in 2013. Australian Peter Greste, sentenced to seven years in jail, was deported after 400 days behind bars. Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian and Egyptian national, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed – who had received the longest sentence of the three – were released on bail a year later. Other local journalists, such as photojournalist Shawkan, remains in jail after five years.
“We can’t forget sympathy tends to go with people who you identify with,” Greste said shortly after his release. “We need to bear that in mind, that because of that trend, it’s so easy to let local journalists slip through the cracks.”
This is why it is essential the international community continues to protest loudly and persistently in the Myanmar case, and those like it. Media outlets from across political divides have demanded the men’s release. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, urged Myanmar to review the decision, and US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called for the journalists’ unconditional release. The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said he will raise the case on an upcoming visit.
But we cannot be vocal about the importance of press freedom abroad while remaining silent about those at home. Last week, two journalists in the UK were arrested over the suspected theft from Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman of documents that were used in a documentary about the collusion of security forces with loyalist paramilitaries. Harlem Désir, the representative on media freedom for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement expressing serious concern about the arrests but the incident otherwise received little attention. We don’t yet know the facts of this case but such events are deserving of our regard.
For the past four years, Index has been documenting threats to media freedom in the European Union and neighbouring countries – from major violations such as the killing and jailing of journalists to the apparently more innocuous, such as online harassment of reporters. What the findings show is that low-level threats are often strong predictors of greater restrictions further down the line – and that we cannot take press freedom for granted.
• Jodie Ginsberg is CEO of Index on Censorship, a UK-based organisation that campaigns for and defends freedom of expression worldwide, and was previously UK bureau chief for Reuters
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