Mightier than the Sword: Journalism, Freedom of Expression and Power

“The Journalist who gives in to
intimidation, who becomes obedient, has already lost the fight for that right (to
freedom of expression)”
Eynulla Fatullayev

It’s a clichéd phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but
its message is typified in the work of Amnesty International’s decades-long letter/email-writing
campaigns for human rights champions. Friday night’s Amnesty International Culture
Night Event Journalism on the Frontline
evoked this phrase again by paying tribute to some of the world’s journalists
who have risked their lives to ensure that corruption and human rights
violations are exposed and the stories made widely available within
international media.

Bimpe Archer from the Irish
relayed the story of Ethiopian Newspaper journalist Eskinder
, whose criticism of the government and refusal to bow to threats from
those who corruption he revealed led to him receiving an 18 year jail sentence
last year. He shares this punishment alongside 23 other journalists imprisoned
at the same time! The Newsletter’s Sam McBride reflected on how ‘getting an
earful’ from Stormont politicians on their job pales beside the horrendous
experiences of Azerbaijani Eynulla
released last year after four years of wrongful imprisonment. Roisin
Gorman from the Sunday World told us
about Syed
Saleen Shazad
, a Pakistani journalist who refused to bow to pressure from
the military to name his sources in articles and was found dead having been kidnapped
and tortured before his body was dumped in a canal. The Belfast Telegraph’s Paul Connolly discussed the journalist
murdered after he dared to speak out against his government and after
numerous threats and beatings was shot dead. Knowing his death was imminent he
wrote an article
to be published posthumously foreseeing his death and explaining the “call of
conscience” that guided his work. The Colombian TV journalist Hollman
was the subject of the BBC journalist William Crawley’s discussion.
Morris, in spite of repeated death threats has continued to live in Colombia
and continued to produce exposés on his government and the military, including
the diabolical practice of falsas positivos.
The world of blogging was introduced by Maralchaí O Doherty, and represented by
Egyptian Mohammed El Dahshan, who covered
the Arab Spring in Egypt at great risk to his own life. The Turkish journalist Ece
, who lost her job after criticising the government’s handling of
killing of Kurds on the Iraqi border, was presented by journalist Suzanne Breen
as an example of the frightening power a government can wield to ensure its official
narrative is maintained. Finally Henry McDonald of the Guardian and Observer
presented the case of Guatemalan journalist Marielos
whose life has been threatened for her continued work in exposing
the truth about, among other things, the disappearance of indigenous people.


The theme that ran throughout the evenings presentations was
power – the power of the journalist and the disempowerment of the people the
journalists represented, the power of government and the power of words, and
the power we wield as consumers.

The power of the journalist is employed in how they provide
a voice for those whose voices have been robbed and for whom speaking out is
too dangerous. As Malachaí O Doherty pointed out, while journalism can make one
a target, it can also be a safeguard against reprisals to an extent. The power
of government was an obvious element of the discussions, given their ability to
intimidate, torture, imprison and kill those who dared criticise them, but what
struck me most was the power of the words they used. In almost all of the cases
outlined, the crime of which the journalists were accused was “terrorism”. The
word has gained such power that it seems it is now the final word, accusing a journalist
of “criticising his government” before jailing him might raise eyebrows, but
denounce him as a “terrorist” and everyone knows
he must be a bad guy. The term that should or could be exact in its definition
has become so vague in its application that it has lost almost all meaning.
However, there is nothing vague about its impact and how wide ranging its
influence can be – e.g. Colombian journalist Hollman Morris was refused entry
to the US to take up a prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism grant at
Harvard because of the terrorist charges against him. The power we hold as
consumers of media and as consumers in general was also emphasised. As media
consumers we are empowered by the knowledge these journalists provide us with,
expanding our worldview and allowing us to access information that they often
pay dearly for. Our power then lies in doing something to change these
situations. Amnesty International is, I believe, based on this premise that we
can wield this individual power as a collective to bring about change; Hollman Morris’s
visa refusal was overturned after civil rights and human rights activists
advocated on his behalf, Eynulla Fatullayev was released after a massive
Amnesty International campaign calling for his release. As consumers we also have
the power to act on the stories we hear by questioning our consumer decisions
and changing them. In a piece by Hollman Morris that William Crawley read, he called
on people to question what price was being paid for their sense of security and
safety. He was directing this to Colombia but it could apply here. We all know
sweat factories exist but we have gotten used to cheap clothes, we buy exotic
fruit and veg and don’t wonder who grew it and if they got a fair price, we
know South American rainforests  and
their communities are being destroyed and we turn a blind eye and it is in our
power to do so – power misused.


While the event focused on international journalism, the
shadow of the dangers journalists have faced locally hung over each story. Roisín
Gorman of the Sunday World movingly
recalled her colleague Martin O Hagan, who refused to back down on his quest to
expose ‘the fantasy’ of the LVF as freedom fighters in his exposés on drug-dealing
by them in Mid-Ulster. Martin O Hagan was murdered in front of his wife by the loyalist
gang 11 years ago this week. More recently, last month a Northern Ireland
journalist was threatened privately and publicly by the UDA, a threat which has
since been lifted. However, a newspaper
on the threat reported that:

“Despite the peace process, a number of journalists still
live under a tight security regime, with CCTV cameras around their homes, alarm
buttons positioned in different parts of their houses and drop-bars on their
front and back doors”

Finally, Suzanne Breen gave a rousing critique of journalism
in Northern Ireland, lambasting what she sees as the lazy and cosy
relationships that have built up between many reporters and their subjects at
Stormont. The threat to journalists’ livelihoods was the sword hanging over
many journalists in Ireland, she argued. Instead of the “’yes sir!’ obedient
journalism” she argued that journalists have a “job, indeed a duty to make
trouble”. Echoing the arguments of Hollman Miller she said that just because
things seem ‘ok’, doesn’t mean they are but that a desperate need to believe everything
is fixed can mean the real issues of housing, policing and prisons is not being
dealt with by the media. The threat from the security forces (on both sides of
the border) in terms of the pressure to toe the line regarding reporting on
local politics was also taken up by Henry McDonald who very worryingly reported
that the NI Executive had in the past, in a most undemocratic manner, threatened to
withdraw job adverts from the Belfast
unless certain journalists were not “reined in”.

The reins of power were placed firmly in the hands of all of
those present by the focus on one particular Amnesty International Prisoner of
Conscience – Mehman Huseynov. Huseynov, took part in anti-government protests
in his native Azerbaijan during this year’s Eurovision Song Contest and as a
result faced five years imprisonment  on
the false charge of “hooliganism”. While he has now been released the charges
have not been dropped and he was expelled from university because of them.  Many of us are happy consumers of the
Eurovision, we have the power to do something about this man’s fate by
contacting the Azerbaijan President to call for his immediate release of all
prisoners of conscience and the charges against Huseynov to be dropped. This link
takes you to the Amnesty page for this campaign