Fear of death: The ultimate injunction

There’s more than one way of muzzling the press; at least super-injunctions don’t imprison or kill, writes Amnesty International UK's Mike Blakemore.

Amnesty International UK held its 20th annual Media Awards ceremony last night [24 May], recognising journalists who’ve made a significant contribution to the UK public’s understanding of human rights in the past year; Mike Blakemore, Amnesty International UK’s media director, looks at the lack of press freedom worldwide

The controversy over super-injunctions and privacy rules shows no sign of abating. Footballers, former Big Brother contestants, highly-paid bankers, major players in the world of motor sport: it’s a vortex sucking us all in. I acknowledge the significance of the underlying issues – the right to freely report versus the right to a private life. But let’s not forget the ultimate injunction: fear of death or imprisonment.

Journalists have every right to challenge what they perceive as over-restrictive gagging orders in this country. It’s essential to a fully-functioning democracy that they do. But this battle pales into insignificance set against the life-and-death struggle to report contentious issues by many of the world’s journalists.

A journalist from the BBC or The Times or even an anonymous Twitter user is not going to get gunned down in the street for taking on the courts and the powerful people and organisations that use them.
 
The Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded the deaths of a staggering 862 journalists in the last 20 years – roughly one working journalist killed every eight days across two decades. Seventeen have already been killed this year, many of them trying to report on the Arab spring.

Last week’s revelation that the London-based South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl had almost certainly been killed by Gaddafi forces near Brega on April 5 was just the latest tragic news out of Libya. Coming after news of the deaths of photojournalists Chris Hondros and Chris Hetherington, it’s been part of a particularly dark time for those who risk their lives to bring back the key images of conflict.
 
In Libya, “February 17” democracy protests have quickly morphed into a major international conflict. Old-fashioned war reporting has replaced the (not inconsiderable) challenges and dangers of reporting on mass protests. The journalistic corps in Tripoli, Misratah and Benghazi now have to contend with the triple-pronged danger of being killed by either of the warring Libyan sides or by NATO bombing, as well as having to negotiate the “information war” with spin operations by all sides.
 
Covering conflict is by its nature a perilous occupation, but the disturbing story of the past 20 years is that “domestic” journalism is becoming ever more dangerous in many parts of the world.
 
So, while there’s been a heavy death toll amongst journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Bosnia, there’s been an appalling casualty rate on the home front. The massacre of over 30 media workers in a group of some 57 people killed in the Philippines in 2009 is the most infamous case, but journalists have been picked off in countries ranging from Angola to Zimbabwe. Russia, meanwhile, is now probably the world’s most notoriously dangerous place to work as a reporter, with Anna Politkovskaya just the best-known of those killed.

When they’re not risking their lives, many journalists are risking their liberty in their pursuit of stories. Our work at Amnesty is quite often focused on trying to get justice for unfairly-imprisoned journalists around the world. To take just one example – in Azerbaijan, Eynulla Fətullayev, a 34-year-old editor of two newspapers critical of the Azerbaijani government, has been jail in since 2007 on a series of trumped-up charges designed to silence him.

It follows a long pattern of harassment and threats against him, including him being beaten up in the street.
 
There’s more than one way of muzzling members of the press. Super-injunctions might be invidious but at least they don’t imprison or kill. It doesn’t mean they’re good for democracy either though.

One Response to “Fear of death: The ultimate injunction”

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