World Press Freedom Day, May 3, is a worthy, but often lack-lustre day on the global calendar. It’s a moment when hundreds of groups campaigning for free expression around the world bury their secret rivalries and come together to condemn governments and others who put journalists and writers to the sword.
But this year’s events will be anything but boring. Inside the free speech community arguments are raging about the limits to free speech after the killings of journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January this year.
Some hard questions are being asked, and not just of governments who are guilty of attacks on dissident editors and writers, but about whether media themselves are betraying free speech principles. The question is prominent on the agenda of a free speech conference being organised by UNESCO in Riga, Latvia, on May 3.
The Ethical Journalism Network is organising a special session at the event to highlight the crisis of hate speech following the killing of 12 people, including leading cartoonists, at Charlie Hebdo.
On the panel will be Marian Botsford Fraser, the chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, who is likely to face questioning over why some distinguished writers are boycotting a literary celebration in New York next week in protest over a decision by the free expression group American PEN to give Charlie Hebdo a free speech award.
Some big-hitters in literature, led by award-winners Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, argue that the “cultural intolerance” of Charlie Hebdo and its perceived anti-Muslim bias makes it an unworthy winner of the PEN prize. Others, including Salman Rushdie, who himself was a victim of the cultural intolerance of extremist Muslims for many years, beg to differ. They argue that it’s possible and necessary to honour the victims of barbaric violence, even if you have to hold your nose over some of the work they produce.
At the same time there are questions over whether media are allowing their own competitive and political rivalries to get in the way of expressing solidarity when their people come under fire.
The EJN panel will also hear a compelling and astonishing story from Hamid Mir, a lead anchor for Geo News TV in Pakistan who is perhaps the only journalist in the world working with bullets still lodged in his body after he was shot six times during an attempted assassination a year ago.
He lives to tell the story, but his case raises chilling questions. He was attacked only days after he was warned by Pakistan security officials not to interview a government critic campaigning over enforced disappearances.
His family suspected that officials from Pakistan’s powerful security force, the ISI, were behind the assassination attempt. They said so, and his was case taken up, understandably, by his own network. But his plight was side-lined as the security services turned their fire on its critics. Some rival media joined an angry backlash against GEO TV – once the country’s biggest news network – which has been taken off the air, banned and unbanned and is now struggling to survive, much to the satisfaction of some of its competitors.
At the same time the appointment of an official inquiry by three Supreme Court judges, into the attack is going nowhere. The three wise men of the Pakistani legal system have still not delivered their report amidst fears that the country’s judiciary is, like media, also under pressure.
Although Pakistani media faces what Hamid Mir calls “the worst kind of unannounced censorship from a powerful security establishment” he remains defiant: “For me, public interest is parallel to national interest and I am proud to be a journalist fighting for public’s right to know by sticking to my duty as a journalist,” he wrote in a recent personal blog about his case.
Also on the panel is Chris Elliott, an EJN Board member and Readers’ Editor at The Guardian. He has had a front-row seat in the drama played out at his newspaper in London where the hate-speech debate, mirrored in thousands of other newsrooms, has been about the use of propaganda videos from IS in Syria and Iraq and violent images posted online by witnesses of terrorist violence.
Another speaker will be Rachael Nakitare, the president of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, who will outline the impact of the Turning the Page of Hate campaign launched last year by the EJN with partners in Africa. She will be a key player in a new phase of the campaign being launched in Dar Es Salaam on May 12 in co-operation with journalists and media from Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi.
Finally, the panel will hear from the political community – Juan Barata Mir, from the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is engaged in trying to curb the information war between Russia and Ukraine – and from Artūrs Kučs, of the University of Latvia, who will bring some learned reflections on the differences between expression that may offend, and that which constitutes hate speech.
The aim will be to encourage everyone to be more ethical and to give perspective, context and humanity in their communications.
Journalists, writers and free speech activists should provide leadership in this work because their livelihoods depend upon it. But as the controversies in the United States and Pakistan demonstrate, we still have some way to go to win the argument within our own community. We can’t win the fight for press freedom unless we recognise that even the people we don’t like, or whose work we find distasteful or offensive, are worthy of support and solidarity when they are victims of violence.