Strong-arm nationalist leaders and online trolls remain the biggest threats to journalists’ safety and media freedom across the globe, according to a professor who was recently awarded an OBE.
Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex and a former BBC, ITN and Reuters journalist, was honoured in the King’s Birthday Honours List last month for his “outstanding contribution” to UNESCO’s efforts to protect media freedom around the world.
He has been described as the ‘father’ of the United Nations Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists, which was adopted in 2012 and is widely thought to have resulted in a reduction in the number of journalists killed at work.
But Gaber, who dedicated his award to the journalists of “immense courage and humility” who continued to work in dangerous circumstances, warned there was much work still to be done.
“Media freedom remains under pressure, obviously in Russia but also more generally. Journalists are being harassed and imprisoned on flimsy grounds. Putin’s style of ‘press freedom’ – i.e. the freedom to say anything, as long as he agrees – is spreading,” he said.
Meanwhile, online harassment and abuse of journalists, particularly women, is growing.
“Trolling is a big factor – even here in the UK – and women journalists are particularly susceptible to online abuse and threats. Fake news is a real problem but perhaps more importantly, attempts to undermine the media by shouting ‘you’re fake news’ is seriously endangering the public’s trust in the media.”
A lifelong dedication to media freedom
Gaber, a former political correspondent for ITN, played a key role in persuading the government, then under Tony Blair, to rejoin UNESCO. The UK left UNESCO under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher who considered the organisation, which oversees educational scientific and cultural issues for the UN, as too left-wing.
He was then appointed to represent the UK at UNESCO’s Media Freedom Division by the government in 2010. Shocked that so many different UN agencies had tangential responsibility for media freedom, he proposed to the UN secretary-general that UNESCO should lead on the issue and a global plan of action should be drawn up to protect journalists and challenge impunity.
“In essence, the plan seeks to raise awareness of the importance of the issue in member states, it helps governments develop policies aimed at protecting journalists and, perhaps most importantly, trains journalists in protecting themselves and judges, police etc in their role in defending journalists – a separate but related development is that UNESCO now names and shames governments that extend impunity to the killers of journalists,” he said.
The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi Arabian government in 2018 shows the issue of impunity for state-backed murderers is still a huge threat to safety, but Gaber believes progress has been made. UNESCO’s two-yearly report on journalists killed and what governments are doing to track down their murderers is important, he believes.
“This issue of granting impunity to those involved in the murder of journalists is really crucial; there has been progress in shining a light on those states which have sought to cover up perpetrators, usually in the army or police, of journalistic murders,” he said.
‘Tireless and influential work at UNESCO’
While it may be impossible to prove cause and effect, Gaber does believe the plan of action has helped protect journalists.
Between 2012–17, an average of 106 journalists were killed every year. Yet, in the following five years, that figure has gone down to 72.
Another difference is that the majority of journalist killings are now perpetrated by criminal gangs and terrorists, rather than state actors, such as security services. This leads Gaber to believe some countries at least – Khashoggi notwithstanding – are reining themselves in.
The professor of journalism maintains that nothing can be taken for granted and situations can change rapidly. This is why he continues his mission at UNESCO, working with journalists and human rights defenders in a number of former countries of the Soviet Union, where media freedom is under threat.
Laura Davies, UK ambassador to UNESCO at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said of his OBE award: “It’s thanks to Ivor’s tireless and influential work at UNESCO that the whole UN has a globally recognised plan of action to improve the safety of journalists, an issue that is both challenging and critical.
“His work in this space reflects positively on the UK’s international reputation and I am delighted that it has been recognised in this manner.”
Gaber was the UK’s first professor of broadcast journalism and first professor of political journalism. He initiated an annual commemoration in the UK to mark the UN’s World Press Freedom Day and now sits as an official observer on the government’s National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. He was a founder member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.
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