15 years ago, Media Defence was established. To celebrate our 15th anniversary, we highlight some developments in freedom of expression over the past 15 years of our work.
This piece is written by Bob Jobbins, who was the Chair of our Board of Trustees for 8 years, between 2013 – 2021. Previously, Bob Jobbins worked for the BBC World Service for 30 years, as a Foreign Correspondent in the Middle East, the Americas, East and Southeast Asia.
A time of technological change and political polarisation
Imagine a period of rapid technological change, accompanied by social, political and religious polarisation. Imagine a time when there are increasing attempts to limit what people are allowed to write or read; a time when governments and rulers identify critics and punish them by forcing them into exile, throwing them into jail or in some cases killing them. Sound familiar? Perhaps it sounds like the revolutions we are experiencing in computing, social media and artificial intelligence – not to mention the increase in authoritarian government, and the growing intolerance of the opinion of others.
For thousands of years the written word was used in the service of kings and priests, inscribed on palace or temple walls, scratched on to clay tablets or painted on papyrus. Writing began its erratic journey towards democratisation during the early modern period in Europe, where techniques invented in Asia were further developed in the second half of the 15th century (CE) to produce commercial printing presses.
Technology: accesss to knowledge and a tool to hold those in power to account
The impact of this technology was, I think, comparable to the development of computing, the world-wide web, and to today’s proliferation of social media and messaging apps, not to mention Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. Access to knowledge was dramatically increased – populations (then like now) became better informed, and able to express their opinions, theories, and grievances.
Today these technologies, the digital and printing, co-exist and are intertwined – they provide the tools for journalists to carry out one of their fundamental tasks: to hold those in authority to account. This role, which has repeatedly been endorsed by the United Nations as part of the larger concept of Freedom of Expression, is widely seen as an essential element in a functioning democracy. This thought was encapsulated by one of the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who in 1768 wrote to a friend: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”.
Jefferson’s high ideals are seldom fully met – even in states, such as the US, Britain or France, that consider themselves major contributors to the concepts of democracy and freedom – let alone states whose histories and traditions are different.
The increasing use of threats and violence against journalists
Around the world there has been a steady increase in the use of violence or the threat of violence against journalists. In Russia, for example, there have been targeted assassinations, of journalists, critics sent into exile or jailed, all part of what appears to be a systematic policy of crushing any signs of political opposition. The kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist who had criticised his country’s rulers was another egregious rejection of international norms. Hundreds more examples could be added from dozens of countries.
State actors also use modern media techniques to destabilize democracy in other countries by interfering in election campaigns, by circulating misinformation backed up with doctored videos or other edited evidence. “Fake News” has become weaponised to undermine social cohesion, confidence in politics and the media. It is often accompanied by advanced surveillance techniques which target journalists, including independent bloggers and citizen journalists.
This bleak picture is not new. Our annual reports have repeatedly noted that we have reached “a moment when the need for our work is more urgent than ever before.”
The scale of the problem facing Media Defence over the past 15 years
In researching for this brief account, I spoke to three people who have played decisive roles in the development of Media Defence: all three were CEOs and between them covered almost all the 15 years of our existence. Peter Norlander, Lucy Freeman and Alinda Vermeer each played a vital role in the development of Media Defence: they achieved its current success. They were all were very clear what were its strengths and why it had been able to achieve so much, but also about the scale of the problem facing Media Defence. All emphasised the importance of our unique mandate – the unwavering focus on legal support, and of collaborative working with other organisations in the field of freedom of expression. And they all set out the daunting scale of the threat to press freedom that Media Defence has spent the last 15 years trying to counter.
This sense of the importance of our work, the progress being made and yet the risk of never being quite able to catch up, of being overwhelmed, is perhaps inevitable. But the mission of Media Defence needs I think to be framed by the over-riding importance of freedom of expression as a key element in democratic societies.
The importance of freedom of expression in democratic societies
This is why we must challenge the assertions of those politicians around the world who attack democracy as a western construct which has, in effect, had its day. Their argument that progress can be made only by strong governments must be shown to be self-serving and showing a contempt for the rights of their own citizens. Good governance relies on oversight and challenge. An environment which allows a free and independent media is essential to achieve this. Unchecked power leads to corruption and abuse – and it is the ordinary citizen who suffers as a result.
There needs to be a wider commitment not merely to the abstract principle of free speech but to the critical importance of protecting fair and accurate reporting and commentary. The irresponsible promotion of material contradicting established facts needs to be vigorously challenged — the world is not flat, and opinions are not facts. This matters because politically charged distortions have consequences – and without freely available, reliable information open debate and discussion are impossible.
Hope for freedom of expression
The record of Media Defence over the past 15 years does, however, offer hope: it is possible to fight back effectively by using the law against unjust laws, against attempts to ignore laws, or against the use of extra-legal tactics to intimidate or stifle criticism or opposition. It is possible to help individual journalists or organisations to defend themselves – financial assistance, professional legal support, or, in the longer-term, training and raising awareness all contribute to the gradual, patient extension of protection to those at risk.
In my career I reported from more than forty different countries around the world, some of which were decidedly authoritarian, sometimes with military rulers, sometimes with a fearsome apparatus of state security – usually both. Frequently I have interviewed the victims of violence or torture, or watched security forces suppress peaceful protest. In this time, I encountered every possible political view or aspiration – but I can honestly say that I never once met anyone who said that what they really wanted was to live in a country with more arbitrary arrests, more torture, more violence or, for that matter, less freedom. Media Defence has for 15 years fought on their behalf – and for the majority who agree with them.
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