Supporting journalism starts with keeping journalists alive

WAN-Ifra's World News Media Congress - described by Michael Golden as "one of the great things your association does" - began on a high note in Glasgow today.

The two issues of the security of journalists and the future of journalism dominated the day, from the opening comments of outgoing president Golden and chair of the UK's independent review into the sustainability of high quality journalism, Dame Frances Cairncross, to the risks faced daily by journalists in Saudi Arabia, India and the Philippines.

A former vice-chairman of the New York Times, Michael Golden spoke of "scary times" and his concern at US president Donald Trump's "poisonous attitude" to Saudi Arabia's involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. "These are dark days," he said.

Nor was the fight for fact-based journalism his only concern, Golden turning to the rise of dominant digital players, among them Facebook, whose facility was being used to subvert democracy. "We cannot let this continue."

He challenged Mark Zuckerberg's claim that the company cannot stop the platform's misuse - "I wonder whether that is really true" - adding that if Facebook were to put a similar proportion of earnings as a media company might reasonable spend on checking facts to the purpose, $11 billion might help.

Dame Frances Cairncross shared her agonising over whether the British government should intervene on behalf of the media when it is not the only industry being adversely affected by technological change, and some media companies were still making good profits. "It's still not clear to me where we shall end," she said.

Were there functions that were so precious that the market might need support, the review had asked. Investigations in the US and Australia had helped her to the view that there were, and that advertising revenue passed through too few hands. A role for the government as "middleman" might also exist in overseeing "conversations between the Press and the giants," she said.

Were there things the Press provided of value which were at risk? It was very likely, though evidence was "disappointingly slender".

More work clearly needed and Dame Frances thought the journalism schools might be able to help... even with what might be "drilling dry wells".

The next steps might be more forensic, it seems, with more evidence needed of what happens "when a reporter goes or a paper closes."

"If people don't read news, democracy trembles," she said, while warning that the "serious public support" needed could not come from the state. "We need money directed, but don't have the mechanisms."

UK foreign minister Jeremy Hunt - a passionate supporter of freedom of the press and potentially the country's next prime minister - was an unannounced closing highlight to the morning's proceedings. He referred to the 99 journalists killed last year and a further 348 locked up by governments - locally that included young journalist Lyra McKee killed in Northern Ireland, and overseas Jamal Khashoggi, murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. "At the time, I condemned his killing in the strongest possible terms - and I do so again today."

And to the role of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo - released from prison in Myanmar last month - in exposing the massacre in Rakhine.

"Their crime was to have uncovered deeply disturbing facts that powerful military leaders had done their best to conceal," said Hunt (pictured). "Thanks to these journalists, we know for a fact that ten Rohingya Muslims were massacred in the village of Inn Din in Northern Rakhine state."

He said "the most salient fact" - the one which tripped up the country's generals - was that soldiers shot dead eight of the men, and local villagers killed the remaining two. "The army was forced to admit as much."

He said the generals gained nothing from their actions because the facts emerged anyway. "Now we can only hope that the exposure of what happened at Inn Din might serve as an object lesson in the value of determined reporting, the futility of repression - and how international pressure can make a difference.

"We cannot physically stop journalists from being locked up for doing their jobs, but we can alert global public opinion and make sure the diplomatic price is too high."

Hunt says he is launching a global campaign for media freedom with Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland - "to shine a spotlight on abuses and raise the cost for those who would harm journalists for doing their jobs" - and will co-host a ministerial summit on media freedom in London. He has also appointed human rights lawyer Amal Clooney as special envoy to gather advice on improving legal protection for journalists. A new fellowship will allow 60 African journalists to gain experience in British newsrooms over the next five years.

"But in the end," he said, "we must promote a free media not solely for practical reasons but because it's what we stand for. If we want to embrace the opportunities of a free society, encourage the open exchange of ideas, pass informed judgement on our leaders and do it peacefully through the ballot box, then we must defend the institution which enables all of this."

And with that, he was gone. A promising start to a worthwhile gathering, made more so later when journalists and editors including Yemen-based freelance journalist Safa al-Ahmad - who collected Jamal Khasoggi's WAN-Ifra Golden Pen of Freedom on his behalf - started talking about the risks under which they live their daily lives. Bringing strong people such as these to Glasgow has certainly been "one of the great things your association does".

And we've just started. The conference continues tomorrow and Monday.

Peter Coleman

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