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Interview with Annie Zaman, independent journalist, advisor for Asia for freedom of expression, Free Press Unlimited and co-founder of Exile Hub

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety.

I'm a journalist by training and education. I started my journey as a journalist in Pakistan where I was born and raised. My father was a journalist, and I always wanted to be a writer, a storyteller. That's how it started for me. I've always been passionate about the power of journalism and bringing forth truth, holding power accountable and giving voices to the marginalized, because I always thought that's what storytelling is for. After Pakistan, I worked in Germany as a journalist as well, then studied journalism, and then went back to Pakistan. That was a time I actually became aware of the safety challenges, because it was after 9/11 happened, and journalists, many of my colleagues in Pakistan have seen so much - the implications of 9/11, of the war on terror in Pakistan. There was not much support available to them in these high-risk environments. My official and very committed journey began when I came across an organization named Journalists in Distress. I found out that there are so many organizations out there that are ready to provide support to journalists in distress in Asia as well. It's just that they're so much focused in New York, London, or Berlin but a. there is a time difference and b. people do not know what is happening in Asia. We are so far away from them, and there's lots of effort needed to bring that kind of information and support to journalists in distress. I was actually struck by the alarming number of journalists who are facing threats, violence. They need medical support. They need legal support, particularly related to harassment as well in their line of work. But they're not aware of this information, or it’s only high-profile journalists who can read and write English. Organizations now last 5 to 10 years. Trends are changing but English, or Spanish, or Arabic or French still dominate. What about the whole Global South, particularly in Asia? I felt that there's no information translated to that part of the world. At that time, I was living in London when I got to know about JID particularly, as I was doing Asia assistance for the Rory Peck Trust. Then I moved from London to Myanmar, which was back then and is still even now a dark information place. Nothing was coming out. Things have opened up but people sitting in other parts of the world had no idea what's happening. When I went there in 2017, there was one case after another of journalists in distress. There was a whole case of Reuters’ journalists getting arrested, followed up by a one-year trial. Three journalists were arrested in Myanmar for using a drone. Another journalist, a friend of ours, a photographer, went to Bangladesh, and did photography in Cox’s Bazar. He was arrested and detained in Bangladesh. There are so many journalists who are in distress right now, and if I am sitting here, I need to be here to get more information rather than being somewhere in Europe. That's how it started. I was basically motivated by a very strong desire to help these colleagues, these individuals who are fixers, whose bylines never come anywhere. They're not star journalists. Their work is not appreciated by anyone. I began collaborating with organizations and individuals working in the field of press freedom, safety and security particularly. I started focusing more on safety, security and protection and deepened my understanding. While in Myanmar I also contributed to one NGO on safety and security – the IMS (International Media Support). They are working with UNESCO as well. Then I also wrote one book on conflict and sensitive journalism in the Myanmar context for the Myanmar Journalism Institute. Then I also started doing a lot of research work, non-traditional journalistic work about digital security, which really made me realize that there is so much out there. When we are journalists or reporters, we just focus on our story and deadline. Sometimes we are in need and we have no idea that there is some support network out there. I have co-founded an organization named Exile Hub for supporting Myanmar journalists in exile. It has been two years and it has expanded a lot. We are getting lots of requests from Cambodia, from Vietnam, from Pakistan. We also have a similar setup for Afghanistan as well. We felt that there's not much support for journalists post conflict.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

For journalists, safety encompasses creating a safe environment where journalists can carry out their work without fear of physical harm, harassment or intimidation. Physical harm is very high on my list, because what we see is that in many countries, it's very easy for journalists to go missing or get hurt while in the field. It includes protecting their physical well-being, ensuring their mental and emotional well-being. Over the years I have learned how so many journalists I come across have PTSD. It's not much acknowledged. It's seen that journalists are troubled people. The claim is that people with troubled personalities go into this profession. But it's not our profession. Imagine journalists, you get second-hand information, and you are part of that trauma. Researchers or journalists when you go to, for example, victims, war victims or rape survivors or conflict or war reporting, it may come across as a very shiny profession but you are absorbing all these things, and your mental health is very important. We have personally witnessed so many brilliant journalists who after one or two brilliant big stories, we don't see them anymore.

What do you perceive as being the biggest threat to journalists’ safety today?

In today's landscape, journalists face a lot more. The people from other generations might not agree but they face a range of threats to their safety. It's not just physical safety for them, for example. There’s digital safety as well. Then there's mental trauma as well, very much targeted violence from state and non-state actors. We see the same in Pakistan, in Myanmar, very similar scenarios in Asia and around the world too. It's very similar challenges so it would be difficult to say there’s one biggest one. It's very contextual. For women journalists, it's harassment or intimidation that are bigger than other challenges. For journalists taking up cases against military corruption, it’s legal challenges. In Pakistan, for example, they face legal challenges. There is impunity for crimes committed against journalists, which we see in Asia a lot. Be it China, be it Pakistan, Afghanistan - journalists get killed, and there's no follow up on even whether they have been killed on their job, on duty. These are the main challenges around the world and Asia is not very different. In other regions, additionally, we are seeing emerging challenges - disinformation and the polarized nature of public discourse that contribute a lot to the risks journalists face.

What would you say is your greatest personal achievement in the area of journalists’ safety?

It's a very interesting question. I usually avoid talking about my personal achievements. If I think about it, it could be establishing and taking initiative that provides support, resources and training to journalists, particularly in high-risk environments. For example, I am personally very proud of this one initiative – Exile Hub, which I'm associated with since the last two and a half years. It started from a network of journalists in Myanmar after the coup happened, and it has grown so big that we are now a proper organization with a board. Our support has reached out to, if not thousands, definitely hundreds of journalists who are at the bordering areas from Myanmar, or who are in conflicts. Right now, there is an ongoing war in Myanmar. Not many people are aware of that. I'm also proud of myself and my network of people who work with me that what we have learned in Myanmar, we applied in Afghanistan as well, because it happened the same year. For example, safe houses. Free Press Unlimited gave me some “cases” – hundreds of journalists who were evacuated and we were able to get to safe places. That's big. I tap on my shoulder and I'm very happy, particularly for some women journalists’ cases. I was able to get them to third countries. It took longer than expected, and many people lost hope. It made me realize that I can make a difference if I continue pushing, and that's my forte - keep pushing, keep pushing because I'm passionate about it. I believe that they deserve better. Why not? One journalist, for example, her case has recently been approved by the Dutch Government, she was not on any list. She has never worked with the Dutch government. There was no chance she would get there but we made it happen. I personally feel it's not my achievement. It's an achievement of the whole community that believes in journalists’ safety and security. It's not one person. There are so many people who come forward.

What is your biggest regret in the area of journalists’ safety?

There are lots. I have tried my best and have dedicated myself to improving journalists’ safety. There are always instances where one feels a sense of regret and that more could have been done. Personally, my biggest regret is not being able to reach and assist every journalist who writes to me, because we have limited resources. I wish I had 48 hours in a day. I only have 24, and I have a child to raise and I have an organization to run. Due to limited resources and the vastness of the challenges they face, I regret that. It is a constant reminder of the urgency to work collectively and mobilize creative support. It's not just Annie Zaman who's working on Asia, and everyone reaches out to me. They should be 100 Annie Zamans. People and journalists should know that they could reach out to them and ask for support.

Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety, and by whom?

There is certainly more that can be done to enhance journalists’ safety. There's no doubt about it. It does require, as I keep emphasizing, a collective effort involving various stakeholders, be it governments or media organizations, civil society actors, international bodies such as the UN agencies, they can play a very big role and also not to forget technology companies. No matter how much we hate Facebook, Meta, etc. they are big players right now when we talk about journalists’ safety and security. When a woman journalist gets stalked, we have to reach out to someone on Telegram or on Facebook. Strengthening legal frameworks to protect journalists is also very important. Many times, when I get cases of journalists’ safety, it is not just outside actors. Sometimes it's your owners as well who are not giving you proper rights. Many media organizations in Asia don’t let you form unions, for example. It's illegal. You cannot be part of a collective to raise your issues. A woman journalist in Myanmar recently reached out to me – a bright young journalist. She is pregnant, and in her contract it's written that she would get maternity leave, but she's being told that she'll be fired. The legal frameworks are very important to protect journalists. Fostering a culture of respect for press freedom, providing comprehensive safety trainings and facilitating international corporations are some areas where concerted actions are needed.

What could academia contribute to the process of improving journalists’ safety?

Academia can play a vital role in improving journalists’ safety. Researchers and scholars such as you can contribute by conducting rigorous studies to better understand the risks and challenges faced by journalists, identifying best practices for safety protocols, for example, and developing innovative strategies to address these emerging threats. If I take the example of Myanmar or Afghanistan, I would love to see an evidence-informed research where there is a baseline, which we don't get time to do. Okay, there are 200 journalists saying that we need a helpline for women journalists. Why? Because of this, this, and this. Or we need legal support in this area. Why? Then there are reasons, because researchers have fine minds, and they know how to come out with more solid recommendations. These academic contributions can be fed into media development work or what governments are doing. One other point is that academic institutions can integrate safety trainings into journalism curricula. For example, offer specialized courses or modules on journalists’ safety and collaborate with the practitioners to bridge the gap between theory and practice. For example, in Asia, we don't have to study journalism to be a journalist. I started doing more research work. I realised that this bridge is needed. I also work with two amazing young people who are really into research. Within our organization, we keep talking about whatever we do in the field. If we're doing a training, we do a pre-test and post test, and then analyse this. Research is so important and can feed into the work we do. It's amazing if you're thinking about doing a platform.

What is your evaluation of the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Do you think that any changes need to be made to it?

The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity has been a significant step forward towards addressing gender safety globally. It has helped raise awareness, promote dialogue and encourage member states to take action to some extent. This is what we have seen so far. However, challenges remain, and the implementation of the plan can be further strengthened. This includes enhancing accountability mechanism, fostering collaborations between governments and civil society, and media organizations, and ensuring adequate funds or resources are allocated to its implementation. There are lots of big things happening but when it comes to implementation, it still lacks adequate resources. That's needed.

Are you interested in collaborating with other people and organizations working in this area? And if yes, on what specific issues?

Absolutely, I am a big fan of collaboration. I don't believe that one person can do everything. I have understood it very well that we come from societies where what I am today or what you are today, it's not just one person. Please, we have roots. We have a history, families, societies, schools or workplaces which have built us. I'm a big fan of collaborations, and, giving due credit to people who work with me. There's a team that works with me. Otherwise, I won't be able to do what I'm doing. Collaboration is essential in the field of journalists’ safety. Definitely. I am always interested in working with like-minded individuals, organizations and initiatives, and share a common rule of enhancing journalists’ safety in Asia. Specific areas of collaboration could include knowledge sharing, capacity-building initiatives, advocacy efforts and joint research projects aimed at identifying innovative solutions to enhance safety challenges.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

Thank you so much. I'm a really, really happy that Leon Willems from Free Press Unlimited connected me with you, and there is someone out there who's working on this, and who's interested in safety and security in Asia. Many times what I feel is that our work is so underground, so quiet. We don't want publicity at times, because publicity also brings lots of safety and security questions. We do underground work. Our website is security protected. You need a password. You need to be part of a network, because we know the work we are doing is not just for one day or one show or one award. It's a long-term work because safety and security and protection of journalists, it's not just journalists. It's the whole families and communities attached to it. There's lots of responsibility that comes with it. While sitting there we have to show face to them as well. Many people I know who are working on Myanmar, Afghanistan, they are not living in Asia. They do not meet them. I make sure I visit countries as well. I meet with people - journalists or organizations as well so they know who I am. So I will be accountable. I feel accountable. The issue of transparency and accountability within larger development organizations is crucial. Many donors make substantial commitments during meetings, but there's a recurring pattern of unfulfilled promises. This culture needs to change. Equitable partnerships between organizations, governments, and those working on the ground are essential. It's concerning that a significant portion of funds allocated for places like Myanmar or Afghanistan stays within donor countries, rather than reaching those in need. This needs to be addressed for meaningful progress in development efforts.

Do you have any recommendations for other champions of journalists’ safety?

Do you know this organization MiCT (Media in Cooperation and Transition)? They have started a new initiative by the German Government. They are working on safety and protection. I would nominate the co-founder Klaas Gelewinkel as a champion of journalists' safety. They're working a lot in Afghanistan, Sudan.