When is journalism a crime?

July 6, 2014 6:00 pm

The verdict to sentence three Al Jazeera journalists to at least seven years in prison has sparked outrage around the world. The Egyptian court found Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed guilty of reporting false news and associating with the now blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.

6a7574d1-e542-4e83-b651-3ffd51765386-460x276‘‘Journalism is not a crime,’’ Juris Greste told a press conference following the news of his son’s sentencing.

Such has the shock of the court’s rulings resonated across the world that the public and media organisations have taken to social media to deride the Egyptian judiciary’s draconian actions. Governments and journalists have also expressed their concern for the lack of freedom of expression and speech in the North African country.

In this instance journalism is indeed not a crime and to be handed down such sentences for simply reporting what is going on in the world defies logic and justice. Divert your attention to the UK, however, and you’re likely to have caught the media frenzy over Andy Coulson’s guilty verdict on phone hacking charges and intercepting voicemail messages.

While the former editor of the News of the World and director of communications to David Cameron was handed down an 18 month jail term, the phone-hacking scandal and trial have had far-reaching implications for both British and global press organisations and their regulation.

david-cameron-arrives-to-hold-a-press-conference-at-10-downing-street-pic-getty-images-617585161How journalists go about obtaining their information has always been an ethical and legal grey area and the boundaries have often been overstepped in pursuit of stories.

Phone hacking and bribery are criminal offences and using these methodologies in journalism to report what is arguably interesting to the public but not necessarily within the public interest, worse still. (Not that a public interest justification would even hold up in a court of law as there is no such defence for anyone caught breaking the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) as far as phone hacking is concerned.)

Freedoms of expression and speech have long been key indicators of democratic societies. But governments, including those that pride themselves on being democratic, often seem to blur the lines where it suits them. Journalism is often condemned as a crime so as to control what information and news is released to the public and as such the right to inform and be informed suffers.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders surveyed 180 countries and found that armed conflicts, misuse of judicial proceedings and governments’ overly-broad use of national security measures and surveillance are among the factors that have resulted in a clear decline of freedom of the press in every part of the world.

130802_bradley_manning_edward_snowden_aps_6051Perhaps most surprising in the Freedom Index report was the significant decline of the United States (46th), which fell 13 places amid increased efforts to track down whistle-blowers and the sources of leaks. The report notes how the ‘‘trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.’’

The findings of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Attacks on the Press report are equally sobering. By the end of last year, 211 journalists were imprisoned and 99 had been killed globally while carrying out their work.

Amnesty International has documented a pattern of journalists facing repression and attacks around the world. In its World Press Freedom Day report last year it noted how in the Syrian armed conflict, ‘‘scores of journalists reporting on human rights abuses have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained, subjected to enforced disappearances and tortured.’’

Responsible reporting about the issues that shape people’s lives is a key building block of any free society. And this freedom matters.

Journalism is not a crime. Journalism is not terrorism. It is an important cornerstone of freedom that holds governments to account and sheds light on the truth. Journalism informs and inspires. It probes and challenges the world we live in and must be done so responsibly.

Sadly, journalists are frequently arrested, threatened, assaulted and imprisoned on bogus charges, including ‘‘endangering national security’’ or ‘‘terrorism’’. When the media is bullied into silence, the truth dies. It is up to all of us to keep it alive and make all voices heard.


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