Journalist David Pratt and panel talk press freedom around the world

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Credit: Rachel Stamford

Rachel Stamford
News Editor

Nine in 10 murders of journalists go unsolved, and the majority of them are locals in their community.

On the eve of the second anniversary of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, Scottish PEN hosted a panel last Tuesday about press freedom in an environment increasingly hostile to journalists.

The panel took place at Sogo Arts gallery where foreign correspondent and photographer David Pratt is currently hosting an exhibition called Only With the Heart, which includes his photography covering conflict around the world.

Scottish PEN is a nonprofit that champions freedom of speech and literature across borders, according to their official website.

Pratt was joined by Scottish PEN Project Manager Nik Williams and Writers at Risk Committee co-chair Jane Archer. Next to their table was an empty chair.

Archer said the chair represented the journalists who cannot attend events such as the panel due to censorship, imprisonment and even murder.

The panel discussed the different threats to journalists across the world and what needs to change to ensure they can work free of censorship and violence. Williams said that nine in 10 of murders of journalists go unsolved, and that number increases for journalists covering political corruption such as mining in the Philippines and drug cartels in Mexico.

UNESCO published a 2017 report that stated 93% of killed journalists are local to the area they are reporting from, and the rest are foreign correspondents. Of these murders nearly 34% are in the Arab region, closely followed by Asia and Latin America.

Though the smallest percentage of journalists killed are in Western Europe and North America, Williams said anti-journalism sentiments have already made their way to the UK.

“We can’t think that we are outside of this,” Williams said. “This is a global epidemic.”

Pratt said good journalism cannot come from a reporter sitting in a newsroom because journalists need to go to the places they are writing about to report.

This is increasingly hard because media freedom around the world has fallen to its lowest level in a decade because of government censorship, organized crime and commercial pressures, according to a study by watchdog group Article 19.

Pratt said part of the increasing distrust in journalism comes from the “Trump mantra” where the US administration’s attack on “fake news” media was sending a message to authoritarian leaders that it is acceptable to discredit the press.

Pratt believes it is harder to be a journalist than it was 40 years ago and said the public often prefers citizen journalism over a professional reporter.

“There used to be a time when I had my camera and professionalism was trusted,” Pratt said. “The opposite is true now. In Scotland, if I have a mobile phone taking pictures no one cares, but if I have my camera, they see me as ‘the press.’”

One American audience member said it is easy to blame Trump, but the US president didn’t come from nowhere and it is dangerous to solely accuse him of the rising distrust in the media.

The panel discussed that while the US has traditionally been a beacon of press freedom, it is actually 48th place in journalist freedom, according to the World Press Freedom Index.

Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit that conducts political advocacy on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press, said never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Their latest study referenced the June 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette which killed four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff.

The panel also discussed new threats such as security breaches that threaten journalists as much as the government. Pratt said as a freelance journalist he uses private forums to communicate with other correspondents across the world, but hacking has always threatened to expose the locations of journalists in areas of civil unrest or conflict zones.

Distrust in the media may also have an effect on the amount of local papers closing in the UK. Since 2005 more than 250 local papers have closed in the UK, according to Press Gazette research. An estimated 58% of the country is now served by no regional newspaper.

Pratt said when you take journalism away people realize they need it. Local papers are the organizations that hold politicians and laws accountable in specific communities.

“It’s important to understand how journalism can benefit society,” Pratt said. “Journalists are either displayed as heroes or slimeballs and it’s unhealthy.”

At the end of the night the panel paid respects to Daphne Caruana Galizia who was murdered by a car bomb in 2017 while reporting on political corruption in Malta.

Pratt said it’s important to support journalists like Marie Colvin, an American journalist who died covering events in Syria, and Galizia who have a history of reporting with integrity.

With just two percent of British adults putting a “great deal” of trust in journalists to tell the truth, according to research by Yougov and Cambridge University, the panel reiterated that solidarity with the media is what keeps the press free and journalists alive.

“Newspapers might die but journalism will not,” Pratt said.

Only With the Heart is at the Sogo Arts gallery until 8 November.