ECPMF joins global move to protect journalists – especially women

by Michelle Trimborn
On World Press Freedom Day, ECPMF staff joined the global UNESCO conference in Helsinki. focusing on the right of access to information and the safety of journalists, which is constantly endangered in many ways.

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Highlight of the conference was the UNESCO/Cano Foundation World Press Freedom Prize which was awarded to Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova for her outstanding and fearless work. As she has been imprisoned for more than a year, it was her mother who received the prize on her behalf.To the sound of loud applause and standing ovations, Elmira Ismayilova read out a speech by her daughter:

 “Stand up for the truth, dare to ask questions and be critically minded. Accept no accuse for political prisoners. Societies cannot develop without scrutiny and public criticism.”

‘Your sacrifice is worth it’

The jailed journalist called upon the audience to stand together in the fight for free media: “As you gathered here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice. […] We, globally, brought together tonight to honour press freedom, must pledge to fight for it.”

Khadija Ismayilova sent the message that she gladly accepts the award and does not show any regret concerning the work she did which led to her imprisonment, but called upon all other journalists and press freedom advocates to continue the important work for the good of press freedom: “Don’t be afraid. Your sacrifice is worth it.”

What became clear at the conference is that female journalists especially are facing a new dimension of violence. They are criticised – and insulted – on a differently from their male colleagues as violence against them is gender-based: they are attacked because they are not only journalists, but also because they are women. What results is that the critics do not deal with their work, but for example with their private life, sexuality or looks. What goes for both male and female journalists is that most of them hesitate to contact their bosses – as they do not expect any help from them.

Most of this harassment and hate-speech is done online, with the consequence that some media have to close down their comment sections on websites. Several discussion pane ls concluded that hate speech is not a means of freedom of expression or freedom of opinion, but is in fact a form of violence which needs to be tackled - especially as it is easily turned into propaganda by some institutions.

Mandatory safety and data protection training

Another big issue was the safety of freelance journalists. Often they are the ones who go into the most dangerous places, but at the same time they are not protected by media houses and do not get free access to safety training. Some even have a problem to finding suitable insurance. Many participants pointed out the responsibilities of media houses for both their staff and for freelance co-workers. Even though safety training courses and other means to protect journalists are expensive, a human life should always be worth more than a good story!

Several panels dealt with digitalisation, debating its advantages and also the problems that new technical developments pose to journalists. Insecure digital data and surveillance through state agencies make source protection nearly impossible. The crucial point made was that new technologies allow journalists to get more and different information, for example also with the help of whistleblowers and it enables cross-border projects like the Panama Papers. But at the same time the same technology puts journalists at high risk if used not correctly and also enables other people to use it against them. Mandatory data protection training for journalists were one of the solutions proposed to this problem as well as a simple one: to avoid new technical devices and go back to the analogue sphere to protect sensitive data.

“We need to mobilise citizens”

Those who consume the  mediawere also discussed and much attention was paid to media literacy and education of the audience – as they are the force that is able to put pressure on governments and other institutions which violate media freedom.

Henrik Kaufholz, chair of the ECPMF, concluded from the conference discussions: “We should consider how to mobilise citizens to create pressure from the public. Politicians will only listen if their electorates demand it. My impression is that even in established democracies very few pay attention to such basic human rights as press freedom and freedom of expression. They take for granted that their constitutions guarantee this.”

Finlandia Declaration

To sum up the World Press Freedom Day 2016, a joint statement, the Finlandia Declaration, was developed by the conference’s Special Rapporteurs and later agreed upon by the participants of the congress. ECPMF also approved the declaration, which serves as a reminder to all relevant stakeholders explaining what needs to be done to better protect press freedom worldwide. However it lacks a strong impact. Many participants, including ECPMF chair Henrik Kaufholz, criticised the Finlandia Declaration and also other official statements : “Unfortunately, only few of the relevant people read such documents and very, very few governments or parliaments transform our suggestions into direct action for the protection of journalists and press freedom.”

This year’s declaration focusses on the fundamental right of access to information and stresses current factors which influence or hinder media freedom: the role of female journalists and challenges they face, access to information and freedom of expression in the digital sphere, digital rights and the big topic of privacy.

ECPMF has a dedicated Reporting Point for female journalists where they can given confidential information about harrassment and abuse, safe in the knowledge that only female ECPMF staff will read their message and that the Centre will act on the information in a way that safeguards women’s safety and anonymity.

Next year’s World Press Freedom Day Conference will be held in Indonesia. More information about how the UNESCO fosters media freedom can be found in the ECPMF Resource Centre.

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