Journalists at risk of death

journalisten unter lebensgefahr

In the introduction Claus Reitan (freelance journalist) refers to the annual statistics of ‘Reporter ohne Grenzen’ (Reporters Without Borders), published on World Press Freedom Day: 57 journalists were killed worldwide, more than 500 arrested, 51 abducted.

A key change in the situation for journalists in crisis regions has been introduced by the Islamic state, says Petra Ramsauer (freelance journalist). While with terrorist organizations like the PLO or Hizbollah, one could assume that they needed journalists to produce a global response, now IS’ propaganda departments take care of it themselves. Foreign journalists are either kidnapped for blackmail or beheaded for martial propaganda videos. For the journalists, on the one hand this means a concrete danger to life, beyond the usual measure of risk (involvement in fights or bombardment, diseases) reporting from a crisis region entails. On the other hand they must ponder whether reporting locally justifies diplomatic and financial involvement of their home state (in case of kidnapping).

Martin Staudinger (Profil) reports on his recent stay in the Central African Republic. What he is emphasizing here, is a European’s luxury of being able to fly home after a week, and to safeguard against various risks for the period of stay. Locals must often do their jobs under much more difficult conditions and – as in the Mexican drug war – are not only subject to threats to life and person, but must also reckon with bestial tortures and assaults on their families. In Austria the phrase of the brave journalists in the face of such working conditions has been grossly overused.

Thomas Seifert (Wiener Zeitung) raises the question of what qualifies as journalism nowadays, when it really is propaganda. He recalls radio announcers who rushed against ethnic groups for days before the start of the civil war in Rwanda. Even Russia Today, a station controlled by the Russian government, is critically mentioned. In Bosnia, slashed tires are just part of daily business for a journalist. Even if one need not exactly fear for one’s life there, free journalism is not constituted under these working conditions.

Edgar Schütz (APA) quotes Reporters Without Borders who state increasing numbers of (mostly physical) assaults against journalists in Central Europe. Even in relatively free countries like Germany in the long run this may result in self-censorship. It is currently difficult to aquire reliable information from Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to Schuetz’ portrayal, is operated by a single person, who is close to the opposition and resides in London. While they may indeed be well connected in Syria, it is still difficult to verify whether the broadcasts actually always reflect the truth – a point that is very important particularly for press agencies, which often act as a filter for other media.

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Ever since the 2003 Iraq war Thomas Krallinger (VÖZ) detects an increasing attempt of opinion control by state bodies. National security is used as an argument to intimidate or monitor journalists in many countries. This is currently true for both democratic states, as well as dictatorships.

The propaganda battle via social media showed particularly clearly in the Ukraine War, when all of a sudden facebook accounts popped up, showcasing and defending the Russian positions with all vehemence. On the other hand, there are sites like www.stopfake.org which convey the Ukrainian propaganda in this hybrid war. In the Netherlands, a propaganda war unfolded as well in the wake of the Ukraine national referendum, with the Russian side collaborating with the Dutch right-wings, but Ukrainians also energetically stepping into the action. A Russian fake video was unmasked there. The blatant lies used increasingly more often in these hybrid wars often take a certain effort to refute. Another effect is that the attacked must refute the allegations and thus has to use valuable time and resources.

Through the massive savings of many print media, the number of foreign correspondents employed has been greatly reduced in recent years. Mostly the use of independent journalists will be resorted to. In the current Syria war, 78 percent of contributions come from those same. This gap in coverage has been recognized by social media who filled the empty space resulting from the savings course.

The amount of information makes comparing them difficult for the consumer – you do not know whether you are dealing with real information, propaganda, second-hand journalism or the likes. This circumstance can only be fixed on site by “journalistic ground forces”. How to pay for it? Krallinger proposes media house collaborations, including television stations. In the chaos frequently left behind by social media, he sees an opportunity for the mainstream media – the demand for real news and explanatory models is stronger than it has been in a long time. This is confirmed by Ms. Ramsauer, who is positively swamped with requests for talks on Syria. Another way of financing for foreign journalists, Krallinger envisions as part of a long-overdue reform of press subsidies.

An audience question deals with the proximity of the media to the societal establishment. The accusation (often summarized under the term ‘lying press’): Fundamental problems are often not or too timidly addressed because journalists have strong links with opinion leaders. Seifert agrees where business journalists are concerned. But even among these, as well as in other subjects, there are always critical minds, such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, or Uwe Krueger, whose books ‘Meinungsmacht’ and ‘Mainstream’ are mentioned.

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All panelists locate a decrease in the protection of journalists by politics. Journalists who are persecuted in their home countries, are invited to European lectures / conferences too rarely, which would allow them to send a signal to the governments of the countries concerned. When Foreign Minister Kurz praises Egyptian President As-Sisi for his war against the IS, but at the same time condones the fact that the prosecution of journalists in Egypt has increased dramatically, this sends signals equally wrong as Merkel’s bow and scrape before Erdogan in the case Boehmermann. When the Turkish ambassador in Vienna recently personally complained about a cartoon loosely based on Boehmermann in the Wiener Zeitung, he bombed with the editor. This steadfastness should find its way into all media, no matter who against.

Attacks on press freedom should not be regarded as a trifle. High quality journalism, says Seifert, is the first firewall of democracy, and currently too many journalists are already burning their fingers. The attack on liberal democracy by governments such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary and Russia, must be countered offensively. The incorporated defensive position democracy is currently operating under, must be overcome.

At the end Martin Staudinger looks at the many new technical possibilities as a great opportunity for journalism. It is not absolutely necessary to always be on location, if you can interact with people you trust on Skype and via other tools.

Translation from German: Serena Nebo