This May Day I attended a rally organised by the Palestinian general federation of trade unions in Ramallah and, although it was not my first trip to Palestine, I was shocked to hear of the brutal reality of life as a journalist reporting within a society that is under occupation.
I arrived as the union was mourning the death of Lyra McKee, a young journalist killed in Derry earlier this year. Lyra’s death was not a targeted shooting, but I know Palestinian journalists – like many other journalists across the globe – are targeted routinely to prevent them opening a window to the world about the realities of the Israeli occupation or the circumstances in the countries where they report from. I heard testimonies from Palestinian journalists being targeted, intimidated, shot at and harassed to prevent them from doing their jobs. Many of these journalists pay for press freedom with their lives.
Lyra’s death was shocking. She represented a voice of hope in Northern Ireland as a young woman who spoke out for LGBT+ rights, for the socially excluded and for those who suffer prejudice because of their sexuality. Her journalism was exactly the reason why we need a free press.
That is why we are asking the UK government and a future Labour government to support the International Federation of Journalists’s (IFJ) campaign for a UN convention on the protection of journalists and media professionals. The campaign was launched in response to rising anger over continued impunity in the face of increasing attacks on journalists and media professionals around the world; 95 journalists were killed in 2018 and yet nine in 10 cases remain unpunished.
The Labour party has been a vocal ally of journalists and media workers in recent times; Jeremy Corbyn is a proud member of the NUJ and at Labour party conference last year he spoke of the need to ‘protect the freedom of the press to challenge unaccountable power’. Like him, we believe journalists can only do their job of holding power to account if they are afforded the freedom to do so. That’s why we are calling on the Labour party to offer its full support for a UN convention on the protection of journalists and media professionals which would establish greater safeguards for media workers in international law and the protection of sources.
The so-called snoopers’ charter gives a wide range of state agencies powers to collect electronic communications and records of internet usage in bulk and create large datasets that include data of people not even suspected of any crime or other wrongdoing. During the passage of the Act, the NUJ had argued for protection for journalists and the right to protect their sources from surveillance. This law must be reviewed, so journalists can speak to sources and whistleblowers, safe in the knowledge that they are not under the surveillance of the security services or police.
As well as calling for a new UN convention, the NUJ is campaigning on behalf of colleagues at the BBC Persian service who are facing daily intimidation from the Iranian authorities. Journalists are being refused visas to return home to visit dying family members while others face misogynistic intimidation tactics such as photoshopped pornographic images being sent to their teenage children at school. And, of course, we are lobbying for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was improperly imprisoned as a journalist and spy.
Every time a journalist is killed – two are killed on average every week – we demand action from governments and world bodies to stop the killing and bring the murderers of journalists to justice. But we also need others, such as the Labour party, to add to the pressure.
Unpunished violence against journalists leads to self-censorship with the result that journalists avoid sensitive topics, leave the profession, or flee their homeland to escape violent retribution. We urgently need a new UN convention to strengthen the rights of media workers backed by a mass campaign in support of those who put their lives at risk to hold power to account.