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Thomas Probert

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The Story is Bigger Than War Correspondents

Posted: 11/03/2012 23:00

Marie Colvin's death has highlighted the dangers facing journalists in armed conflict, but the threats to journalists worldwide are much broader.

The world has rightly mourned the death of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik in Syria two weeks ago and has avidly followed the plight of other journalists trapped within what has become the deadliest targeting of civilians since the siege of Sarajevo. These brave correspondents have endured great dangers in pursuit of truth and kept the plight of the people of Homs in international headlines.

However, we should remember that the day before the shelling that killed Colvin and Ochlik, a Syrian journalist, activist and videographer, Rami al-Sayed, was killed in Homs. Al-Sayed had been among the first to record the attacks on civilians that were taking place, and to stream these recordings to the internet, where they made headlines around the world, and were partly responsible for drawing foreign correspondents to Homs.

While the deaths of those foreign correspondents grab headlines, the Committee to Protect Journalists has demonstrated that nine of every ten journalists who are killed worldwide are local reporters.

Over the past six months the Cambridge University's Centre of Governance and Human Rights has been researching the right to life of journalists. The research was in support of Christof Heyns, the UN's Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial Killings, whose next report to the Human Rights Council will concern this subject. Last week he convened a meeting of experts in Cambridge to discuss the many thorny issues surrounding it.

One of the key findings of this research was the importance of emphasising the diversity of the threats faced.

Far away from conflict zones, those reporting day-to-day on political corruption or malfeasance find themselves quietly targeted. When they courageously speak out, governments find diverse means of silencing their criticism. Last January, a Spanish journalist was brutally attacked in response to a newspaper article on the misuse of public funds. A reporter for the BBC's Uzbek-language service, arrested in Tajikistan last June claims he was tortured while in detention. In Cambodia, three journalists received death threats after attempting to investigate a report accusing the prime minister of involvement in large-scale illegal logging.

In addition to threats or harassment, the most straight-forward way to silence journalists critical of governments is to imprison them. In 2011 it was estimated that 179 journalists were in jail: 42 of them in Iran, 28 in Eritrea, 27 in China, and 12 in Burma. Many states have all-encompassing laws on terrorism, treason, criminal defamation or 'false news' that allow governments to infringe the rights of journalists whilst acting within the law. For example in South Africa, the new Secrecy Bill could mean that journalists can no longer claim public interest in publishing sensitive information about the government. They could face 25 years in prison for publishing information which state officials want to keep secret.

But the state is not the only villain. Journalists who report on organised crime also find themselves targeted. Last September Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, a Mexican journalist reporting on the criminal gangs of Nuevo Laredo, was found dead with a note placed on her body identifying the website for which she wrote and the pseudonym she had used on Twitter.

A keyboard and set of headphones were also placed next to the body. Such very public and direct attacks can very quickly lead to a culture of self-censorship, such as exists, for example, around reporting on drug-trafficking in northern Pakistan, or on the powerful cartels of Latin America.

The expansion of social media and the proliferation of those reporting to both national and international audiences have doubtlessly increased access to information worldwide. But it has also created a new vulnerable group of 'netizens'. Some countries, including Iran, China and Burma have specific laws against "cyber criminals" which are used to target citizen journalists; others, such as the UAE and Vietnam, disguise such arrests behind other offenses.

In nearly 90% of instances of journalists being murdered there is no prosecution. Impunity is widespread. This is often because of state complicity in the act, but even when that is not the case, there is insufficient public pressure to ensure investigation. The vast majority of these killings are of local or citizen journalists who are beyond the oversight of an interested, international public.

It is for these reasons that prominent figures such as Frank La Rue, the UN's Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, who was in Cambridge last week, have called for international recognition of high-risk contexts for journalists extending beyond war zones.

Meanwhile it is incumbent on us - the interested consumers of journalism - to remember that the dangers faced by those who bring us our news extend beyond the conventional battlefield.