Press Freedom: Too many died

My few words to the Bristol Palestine Alliance rally about media bias.

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, and yesterday and today journalists around the world remember our colleagues who have died or been injured, or imprisoned, just for doing their job. 

People love to hate journalists. But we would be in an even sorrier state without them. Without the bravery of people like Shereen Abu Akleh and Wael Al Dahdouh we would know little of what has been happening in Gaza and the West Bank – and not just now but for generations past. 

Yesterday UNESCO presented the Guillermo Cano Prize award to Nasser Abu Baker, President of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and vice-president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on behalf of his colleagues in Gaza.

The IFJ has been pushing for an International Convention for the protection of media workers, especially during conflicts. We demand greater protection from those who seek to destroy our ability to keep the public informed.

Journalism has become an ever more dangerous trade as those with power seek to keep us quiet about their activities. They are only too happy to see the messengers being shot at. It keeps attention away from them, and cows messengers into self-censorship.

On 9 January, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem to allow independent access for journalists and media workers in Gaza. Desperate to keep information from their own citizens they cited “security concerns”, but whose security do you think they were most concerned about? 

More than 10 per cent of the 13,000 media workers in Gaza have already been killed by both indiscriminate and targeted bombings. Most of the rest have been forced to leave their homes, in mourning for family members and colleagues. Some work in tents supplied by Reporters without Borders and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.

Governments will always try to put restrictions on journalists. On 1 April, the Israeli parliament gave Netanyahu’s government the power to ban international broadcasters if they are deemed to threaten national security. He immediately banned Al Jazeera, the one outlet with reporters on the ground inside Gaza, whose daily bulletins have kept us in touch with what is going on.

Here in the UK the government once banned on the public from hearing the voices of Sinn Fein members resisting discrimination and oppression in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.  The National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland members were in the forefront of opposition to that ban.

More recently the UK government y has had Julian Assange incarcerated for five years, because the American government want him extradited to face trial for espionage. His offence? Revealing inconvenient truths about US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. A decision on his extradition is scheduled for 20 May. Again it is journalists in the forefront of the campaign against his extradition. Journalism is not a crime.

Meanwhile the public service broadcasters like the BBC and ITN/Channel 4 news are required by statute to offer balance and impartiality. They have had to qualify any mention of Hamas with the mantra that the UK government, and others, regard them as a ‘terrorist organisation’. 

However there is a big difference between being impartial (not taking anyone’s side) and being partisan. Bias and downright lies must not be tolerated. Verification is what is supposed to set journalists apart from rumour mongers and  propagandists.

You have to wonder what has happened to the basic journalistic function of verification when a Sky News presenter glibly announces that the ‘pro-Palestinian encampment on the Los Angeles campus of the University of California has ‘turned violent’. Yet the evidence in front of our eyes, and his, was that the peaceful student encampment was under physical assault from masked so-called counter-demonstrators.

Those with enough money can consolidate their power by owning newspaper chains and media houses and determining their editorial lines. Never confuse journalists with the policies of their employers.

When the New York Times instructs its reporters not to use the term ‘Refugee Camps’ when referring to UN recognised refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, or bans the use of the term ‘Genocide’, we know that control of the message has got out of hand. 

Among our freedoms in this country is the right to challenge perceived media bias. If you think a journalist has got things wrong – tell them. But always supply evidence to back up your claims. If you complain to a newspaper, or a broadcaster be sure of your facts. And if journalists do their job well, tell them. Too few people ever thank journalists. It is not the easiest of trades.

Be calm and rational when complaining to the Independent Press Standards Organisations IPSO, or to IMPRESS or to the media regulator OFCOM. Back up your claims with verifiable facts. Arguments are weakened by inflammatory challenges.

And beware of what you see and hear on social media. These are not the most reliable forms of communication. They are easy to cheat, and it is even easier to amplify false information. Double check before you accept such information as gospel. We have all been caught out, and the last thing we need to do is raise false hopes or alarms. 

On World Press Freedom Day, Palestinian media organisations established an Alliance for freedom of expression and fundamental rights in Palestine. We should join them. 

Journalism is not a crime. Defend Press Freedom!

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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