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Interview with Elisabet Cantenys, Executive Director, ACOS Alliance

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

I'm the executive director at the ACOS Alliance - a global coalition of more than 150 news organizations, press freedom/ journalism NGOs, and journalist associations, working together to champion safe and responsible journalism practices. Our mission is to create A Culture Of Safety within journalism, so it becomes an everyday practice. I am a journalist myself. I still introduce myself as a journalist because that's who I am. That's how I define myself, but of course, I've become a press freedom advocate. I never planned this. It somehow came to me. I became so passionate and engaged with the work from day one. I got involved in journalists’ safety back in 2003, it has become the centre of my professional life. I cut my teeth working on emergency response for 12 years. It was an amazing experience. I learned so much from listening to the issues that many freelancers and journalists face around the world when it comes to safety and security. 12 years of everyday working on emergencies, with journalists being injured, kidnapped, arrested, threatened, attacked, you name it. That experience also drove me to the work of the ACOS Alliance today because I realized, in my previous role, that something bad needed to happen to you in order for me to be able to help you. We had to wait for an emergency. That frustration grew in me. We could only support these journalists when they were in an emergency. But what can we do so they don't get into that emergency? What can we do on the prevention side? How are we able to avoid or mitigate the consequences, all the drama they are they are enduring. That's what drove me to ACOS - an organization that is very much focused on preventive measures and building the resilience of individual journalists and our ecosystem.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

Safety to me is very linked to resilience. We can't erase threats and risks. For many, this is part of the profession when you are covering and investigating sensitive issues, depending on the context that you're working in and on your profile. The threats and the risks that journalists may face are inherent so I don't see safety as erasing all risks but rather as managing them and empowering journalists to be more resilient. That entails a more comprehensive holistic approach than we've seen historically. It means looking, of course, at your identity and your profile. It means looking at the different dimensions of safety, not only physical but psychological safety, legal awareness, digital security, online security.

Which threats do you perceive as being the biggest ones to journalists’ safety today?

This is a very tricky question because it depends on who you are, where you are working and what’s your beat. Physical, digital, psychological and legal, these are all equally important. I know there is an increasing awareness of legal threats, it's becoming more prominent and sophisticated. We are increasingly aware of these, and of course, digital security and online security. But who knows what AI will bring us? We are starting to figure that out. I don't think any of these aspects is more important than the other one, they interact with each other and what’s relevant is that we are becoming more aware of the complexity of these. The danger is to focus on one dimension ignoring how these are linked.

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

We need to be modest here. Something that I'm very proud of is how I’ve tried to bring people together and create a dialogue. That's something that excites me so much now. The point about ACOS being an alliance is it's bringing people together. Some of these colleagues and organizations, whether they are NGOs or news organizations, are competing for stories or funding, etc. but when it comes to safety, I see how many are able to leave aside the competitiveness and to see the shared values, the shared concern, objectives, goals and vision that we have. I want to believe that I am a little bit of a champion of that approach. I want to believe that I'm someone who's instigated that together with others. I'm not alone. It's impossible for anyone to do these on its own, but I'm proud to see how I may have played a role in bringing colleagues together and in sharing and trusting and working collectively.

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

Rather than regrets, I would say frustrations. I get frustrated when I feel like we're not moving fast enough. We have been advocating for the safety of journalists for a long time and when I get confronted with individuals and organizations that still don't get how important this is, when there is a lack of will, it’s disappointing. Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety and by whom? We need news organizations to come fully on board. News organizations and initiatives need to embed safety best practices into their work. Safety is not an add on, it's a prerequisite for professional journalism. We will never be able to erase the risks and the threats. Never. There will be new ones. We didn't anticipate online harassment some decades ago, and who knows what we are not anticipating now. What we can do is to build resilience, to empower these organizations and journalists so they have their safety muscle well developed. So whatever comes through, they are able to overcome it, and they are able to continue their work. News organizations need to own that, and work closely with NGOs. This is something that the ACOS Alliance is very invested in - the emphasis on news organizations owning that safety and building their resilience. It's part of their viability as a business as well.

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

Journalists and press freedom advocates - we are so busy with our daily work and the activities that we're doing. There's a lot of emphasis on the now, and there's not enough time on reflecting, analysing. Academia has the luxury to invest time on reflecting, analysing with a methodology that has a lot of rigour.

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

It's great we have this mechanism but it needs to be more effective for we need to see results. Advocacy is a long marathon, I wish we could see more political will. There was excitement around it when it was launched, and 10 years later, we are looking back and asking what has actually been achieved? How can this be more effective?

Are you interested in collaborating with other organizations and individuals on journalists’ safety and if yes, on what specific issues? The answer is always. The reason is, and I may sound like a broken record, because I keep saying the same, the challenges that we face are larger than any of us individually. We really need to come together to formulate solutions, to optimize the resources that we have, to be innovative, to reach as far as we can, because the need is huge and it's only increasing. Sometimes I feel like the problems we are trying to solve are like water, it is coming out of your hands when you try to catch it. We really need to bring our hands together to be able to hold on that water. That’s a defining trait of the ACOS Alliance, and it's that collaborative approach that ultimately will make a difference.

Do you have any suggestions for other champions of journalists’ safety, or any content that can be or incorporated onto the website?

I’m sure you are talking to many of them already. I would also encourage you to reach out to individual journalists and editors from different geographies and backgrounds, they are our eyes on the ground. Have a look at the list of ACOS signatories, we can put you directly in touch with any of these organizations.