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Attacks against press freedom are attempts to silence all civil society

Turkish journalists in 2012 holding photographs of their colleagues who lost their lives in Syria, from left, Anthony Shadid, Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

In 2008, when I started out my career as an intern at British newspaper The Sunday Times, I was lucky enough to have a very fleeting encounter with one of the greatest war correspondents of our generation, Marie Colvin. 

Seldom in the office, she cut an imposing figure with her black jacket, striking blond hair, and eye-patch, an injury she incurred covering Sri Lankan civil war. These small moments are the highlight of an intern’s day spent making coffee for the editors and doing the newspaper rounds in the office. Her vivid accounts from war-torn countries, exposing injustice and ensuring victims’ stories are heard, are what inspire the next generation to follow in her footsteps  - no matter what field of reporting we end up in.

Four years later, in February 2012, Colvin was gone, killed together with French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, while reporting from the besieged Syrian city of Homs. Last year, a US court ruled that Colvin, an American citizen, was not just the victim of an accident. The Syrian government was found to have deliberately targeted journalists during the country’s civil war in order to suppress dissent.

This tragic event is sadly just one example of crimes against journalists still taking place too frequently today. What’s more, it is an even rarer example of justice being delivered and the actors responsible for those crimes being held accountable.

“Ninety per cent of the murders of journalists remain unresolved,” said the Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga this week in Geneva, quoting UN figures. “Threats and attacks against journalists have reached an alarming magnitude”.

Sommaruga was holding a side event on the freedom of the press at the Palais des Nations together with Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, herself a former political prisoner. “In several countries, increasing politicization of the pandemic, and efforts to blame its effects on political opponents, have led to threats, arrests, and smear campaigns against journalists who maintain fact-based information about the spread of COVID-19 and the adequacy of measures to prevent it” Bachelet added.

The event, which was moderated by our editorial director, Serge Michel, gave the floor to journalists from across the world, with moving testimonies from Mexico, Brazil, Madagascar, and Syria.

Attacks on independent reporting and against journalistic freedom are not limited to areas of conflict or political unrest. The Swiss cartoonist Patrick Chappatte shared with the audience the case of The New York Times: “to solve the problem raised by a cartoon, they killed the cartoonist”.

As Bachelet said in her speech: “As when journalists are targeted in the context of protests and criticism, these attacks are intended to silence all of civil society, and this is of deep concern.”

The picture may be bleak, but we can take three good news from the event:

  1. That the issue of press freedom was discussed at this level by heads of states and top UN representatives. More often, the topic is led by NGOs like Reporters Without Borders.

  2. No country represented on Tuesday at the Palais des Nations, even those criticized in journalists’ testimonies, denied that freedom of the press is of ultimate importance.

  3. The language of the meeting was not all diplomatic. In the UN, it’s rare to hear first-hand accounts from people that are directly concerned. This sets a strong precedent and Geneva must remain a place of free speech.

The press freedom event was originally scheduled to be held at the General Assembly in New York but, perhaps fortuitously, because of travel restrictions, it took place in Geneva. It was the first time that such an event was organized, within the UN system, and it should not be the last. Regular meetings on freedom of the press would provide a level of accountability and ensure countries keep their word. As a newly launched non-profit journalistic platform, Geneva Solutions we will continue covering just that.

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