Through a series of interviews and articles with journalists and activists, our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina is exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and transforming communities. Following chats with Shanon Shah, James Hatts and Alessandra Galloni, our last conversation is with Rebecca Vincent, of Reporters Without Borders.
A protest against press freedom restrictions in Turkey by Reporter Without Borders, during an official state visit by the Turkish President to Germany (Berlin, 2018).
“I hope you’re not having a very stressful day though Twitter tells me things have been busy at your end with this morning’s hearing?”
“Yes. It’s one thing after another in that case, honestly! Today, we couldn’t even get access to the administrative hearing. They postponed it, but the court didn’t even communicate with us, and then when it resumed they left the press and other observers on the phone line without connecting us to the hearing. We were all scrambling to try to figure out what was going on. It’s just one barrier after another... even before the lockdown started, when I was monitoring the case in person, back in February. And obviously, this case is of high public interest.”
Rebecca Vincent is a human-rights campaigner with a focus on freedom of expression. She started her career with the US State Department as a Foreign Service Officer before moving to the UK 11 years ago and is now the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders. Often referred to by its French name, Reporters sans frontières’ (RSF) is an international organisation headquartered in Paris which campaigns for press freedom across the globe with a journalistic focus: safeguarding journalists, citizen-journalists, journalistic sources and whistleblowers. They have a network of correspondents in more than 130 countries who not only help with research but enable the organisation to react quickly to situations in other countries where they don’t have permanent representation.
This international presence is very important to the work being carried out on the ground. In several cases, the RSF office is the only press freedom organisation actively working in the region. “I’m thinking of our East Asia Bureau in Taipei and our newest office, in Dakar”.
I became familiar with the work of RSF in the aftermath of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination in Malta. Rebecca and her colleagues , along with other human rights organisations and media groups like The Guardian and Reuters, were crucial in bringing the story to Britain. I heard her address vigils in London over the last three years and avidly followed her work in monitoring the criminal investigations and ongoing public inquiries in the Maltese courts. It was a real pleasure to finally have the chance to chat with her.
“We’ve monitored trials in all sorts of countries yet I have never so consistently experienced barriers like these, even in countries known for their problematic approach to the press. Thinking of countries like Turkey, where I’ve had much easier access to monitor hearings. Same thing in Azerbaijan and Malta! I’ve never had this problem in Malta, you know?” Rebecca was referring to the sensitive case of Julian Assange which has put the UK’s relationship with press freedom and its justice system under the international spotlight.
Julian Assange addressing an Occupy London protest, 2012. Later that year, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. In 2019, his asylum was withdrawn following disputes with the Ecuadorian authorities. Assange was arrested and is currently fighting an attempt to extradite him to the US where he faces scharges of espionage.
Bemused, yet with a sense of disbelief, she recalled how “last time, they added us by teleconference, which we were able to join. But it was a disaster! We could only hear the judge clearly, and nobody else. Also, every time somebody joined or left the screening, it was announced and people were not muting. The judge had to actually stop and interrupt proceedings to address this issue. When I tried to join again for this morning’s administrative hearing, I got nothing but hold music. They forgot to add us, and only six journalists were physically allowed into the court. One of them happened to tweet and that’s how we basically got any information.”
Was this a question of incompetence or something more sinister? “That’s my question. The impact is detrimental to open justice either way… everything will be scrutinised” She told me how back in freezing February, she had to queue for hours, starting before dawn, to get access to the public gallery as the court didn’t accommodate NGO observers. “By the time I got in I was already exhausted, having been up since like 4am. Oh, and then you have to fight for your spot all day. Every time the court had a break, we all had to leave. We couldn’t leave our stuff either so even if you went to fetch something to eat, you might not have been allowed back in. So yeah, it was miserable even in person.”
Rebecca opened the London office just under four years ago with a responsibility to monitor and defend UK press freedom and advocate for the protection of global press freedom in the UK context . Similar to Paris and Washington DC, there are several like-minded groups working on freedom of expression. “We have been able to carve out a space for our campaigns as not many organisations were focusing as heavily on UK-based press freedom issues…but I believe we are stronger if we hold ourselves - here in established democracies - to the same standards that we promote abroad (...) The UK is a great example of a country that should be performing better on our World Press Freedom Index. It slipped to 35th out of 180 countries.”
This brought to mind a conversation which Anushka Astana, of Today in Focus podcast, had with Luis Encina, a nurse and a coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières. Conventionally called to work in countries with a frail healthcare system, he is now surprisingly working in his home country of Spain as COVID-19 ravaged through towns and villages. We tend to think of RSF as an organisation that works on cases happening in Turkey or Iran where challenges are more obvious but challenges in older democracies are growing; thus I enquired more about the work of RSF in countries such as the UK.
Lyra Mckee (1990 - 2019), a journalist from Northern Ireland, reporting on post-Troubles. Fatally shot during riots in Derry.
“The first challenge is to make it known the extent to the restrictions and violations of press freedom that are happening here.” Rebecca kicks off with the story of Lyra McKee who was killed whilst observing rioting in Derry last year. A recent RSF research mission to Northern Ireland uncovered some of the shocking risks faced by journalists covering organised crime and paramilitary activity. . “There are very active threats to the safety of journalists. Sometimes it takes something extreme like a murder to wake up the population to what’s happening. That was much the case with Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia.” For Rebecca, the very clear lesson from all of this is that we cannot become complacent anywhere, we cannot assume that we have always got it right. For the rights which we most value to be always respected, we can never take them for granted in the first place.
A quick look at the World Press Freedom Index*, which every year assess countries on their respective records, shows that the performance of democratic countries is continuously slipping. “An analysis of our data from 2019 on the number of journalists killed highlights this clearly. Last year there were fewer journalists killed than the previous 16 years. This is not a matter of the world becoming more safe for the media… we know it’s never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist. It’s that fewer journalists were killed in conflict zones with a significant increase of murders in countries which are meant to be at peace.” This is also matched with increased deliberate targeting of journalists, particularly those investigating cases of corruption.
“We have to be vigilant everywhere. These trends have now reached Europe and the UK, and such things do not happen in a vacuum. We have to look at the climate that allows for all this.” One of the areas that RSF has been focusing on is the legal environment of European democracies. “We often play watchdog with proposed legislation, monitoring everything for press freedom implications.” Indeed, for the majority of cases, concerns lie within legislation that at face-value is not immediately related to press freedom but impacts the ability of journalists to do their jobs through new restrictions. In the UK, this has often happened in the name of national security through counter-extremism and surveillance legislation. “We’ve been working to try to make parliamentarians more aware of the implications of such legislation. Sometimes, we can influence amendments to ensure better protection for journalists such as with last year’s Counter-terrorism Act. Of course, there were still areas of concern in that bill.” Rebecca also mentions the Investigatory Powers Act of 2017 as one of the first laws they fought as soon as they established a presence in London. “This legislative measure led to the government obtaining vast powers to access and to store the communications data of tens of millions of people, including journalists. This was done without sufficient protections for journalists and whistleblowers.”
Of course, Britain is not alone in setting a wrong example. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turns to the United States’ leadership and its increasingly hostile attitude towards the media. “Phrases like “enemies of the people”, “fake news”, these are having serious implications (...) with a significant proportion of the population following every word President Trump says, you quickly see that hatred towards the media being fostered amongst his supporters. And we keep on seeing mini-Trump figures popping up in other parts of the world. He really does have a lot to answer for, especially in setting trends such as this.”
State responsibility is one of the focuses of RSF. In the last couple of years, several governments and their officials have contributed heavily towards the erosion of public trust in the media. Whilst in the UK there isn’t such a polarising figure as is Donald Trump, there have been several cases of public officials issuing worrying statements about the media. “During the last general election campaign, the Conservative Party made threatening remarks towards public service media, with the BBC and Channel Four taking most of the brunt of this. When they won the election, we started seeing this turn into actual policy. There have been changes, for example, to the system for political-lobby journalists with the aim of restricting access to certain media. There developed a preferential treatment to media that tows a certain editorial line and a more punitive approach to those who were more critical. And this has no place in a democracy. We’ve raised the alarm bells in the hope that we can stop this before such practices become entrenched, like in the US. It’s harder to adjust once it’s become the default.”
Similarly we could not avoid the subject of the current pandemic and its impact on the health of press freedom in the UK and elsewhere. “I was really pleased to see that journalists have been recognised as key workers here. Journalists have to be able to do their jobs now more than ever and our monitoring of how this is respected in practice will continue.” For Rebecca, the current public health crisis is also the perfect example to illustrate the concrete implications press freedom has on our lives. On a national level, there are concerns with the format of current remotely-held press briefings. “When journalists ask a question, they are subsequently muted and not given the opportunity to follow up or reply. It’s not quite the same level of robust participation and this government has not always been so forthcoming in terms of the information that it’s sharing.”** This has happened on a much larger scale in countries which early on had high infection rates such as China and Iran. RSF believes that had there been better respect for press freedom in China, for whistleblowers to come forward and for an independent media to report very early on the true extent of what was going on, a pandemic could have possibly been avoided. “We will never know but this is a real life manifestation of why press freedom matters so much!”
The current pandemic has also exacerbated the financial struggles which the media industry, and the related non-profit sector, were already facing pre-COVID-19 with sales and advertising going further down. “Moreover, at the moment, there are a lot of small practicalities that are being affected as there are things that we would normally do that are not possible. We can’t travel and undertake press freedom missions, speak at events or carry out meetings with government officials and parliamentarians with the same level of effectiveness. But everybody’s adapting and there’s a bit of learning curving as the lockdown goes on.”
“There are journalists right now who are also languishing behind bars, now facing the additional risk of exposure to COVID-19 in prison. On the legal front, efforts for justice to be delivered, for example in cases of murdered journalists, have been stalled as courts are not fully working in every country.” Relatedly, it has also made it much harder for RFS to capture public attention and motivate people to take action. “It’s hard, at the best of times, to compete with all of the other crises taking place in the world - let alone with the current pandemic!”
Apart from numerous ongoing campaigns, RSF has an Emergency Assistance Team based in Paris which offers concrete support to journalists from legal support to help covering medical costs, including with mental health. “We try to help all journalists whose cases we are made aware of - from concrete emergency assistance to advocacy support.”
And how can more passive citizens contribute towards an environment that supports press freedom? “First and foremost, to be vigilant and aware of issues related to access to information. And this should be carried over into consumption, making sure that as individuals we are supporting independent quality journalism. Subscribing to independent media and donations***, even in small amounts, to organisations like ours can really go a long way.” Rebecca also suggests writing to MPs who would in turn add pressure on the government and shed light on issues which might not get enough attention.
There are, of course, lots of things one can do in person, such as grassroots activism, which are not completely possible at this time in their usual format. “A lot of that has translated online. We’ve been doing some virtual vigils to keep the momentum alive behind certain key cases. Even small things right now, like sharing material on social media, can be very useful to sustain attention to key issues. At RSF, we are very concerned about what the world is going to look like on the other side of this and so the actions we can all take now, can make a tremendous difference in the future!”
*To read more behind the figures of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, you can access the following analysis by RSF: https://rsf.org/en/2020-world-press-freedom-index-entering-decisive-decade-journalism-exacerbated-coronavirus
**Since I spoke with Rebecca, RSF have released the following statement: https://rsf.org/en/news/uk-press-freedom-under-threat-lockdown-government-dismisses-reporting-campaigning-newspapers
***You can make a donation to RSF online by following this link: https://donate.rsf.org/uk/donate/~my-donation.