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Interview with Elisabeth Witchel, Coordinator Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR), Media Defence

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety?

I worked as a journalist for a few years mostly out of South Korea but found myself increasingly interested in the work of human rights NGOs. The combination of my human rights and journalism interests eventually led me to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ]. That was over 20 years ago. CPJ monitors violations and advocates for media freedom and the rights of journalists to report without reprisals. At that time, they were launching a new program, called Journalists’ Assistance Program which I was hired to manage. The programme provided direct safety help to journalists, working hands-on on individual cases of journalists at risk needing different things – sometimes help relocating, medical treatment if they'd been physically attacked, or other kinds of support. While at CPJ,  I also helped launch its Global Campaign against Impunity in the murders of journalists. That was around 2007. We felt the need to strongly raise this issue, having looked at all the data that the organization had tracked for a decade on journalists’ killings and seeing some of the disturbing trends, such as how infrequent it was that the perpetrators were ever convicted or brought to justice. Then I moved to England and continued to work as consultant for CPJ, primarily on impunity issues. In that capacity I got more involved in the broader range of journalists’ safety issues. At that time, UNESCO began developing its UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. I attended  some of the early consultations on the plan and monitored and advocated for its implementation. As a consultant I also worked on some projects for the Danish organization International Media Support and others primarily focused on addressing impunity and looking at the holistic aspects of safety of journalists as well as the development of national mechanisms for safety of journalists.  I'm currently working for the London-based organization Media Defence as coordinator of a relatively new initiative called the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk [LNJAR]. The project was jointly founded by Media Defence, Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

As time goes on, it’s come to encompass quite a lot. When I first started engaging in journalists’ safety as a topic, UNESCO coined the 3 Ps – prevention, protection, and prosecution. All those elements need to be in place. When we talk about preventative, we're looking at steps like safety training but also at creating an environment that's conducive to media freedom. That might be strong legislative frameworks and strong institutions that can uphold the laws in a fair way, but it also needs to focus on developing an understanding and appreciation of what journalists do and the importance of their roles in society.

I first got involved in safety of journalists at a time when violence against journalists was very high, especially in conflict areas. There's still an alarming number of journalists killed and violently attacked, but we have also, in more recent years, seen the emergence of other threats that are more complicated to integrate into the safety of journalists’ frameworks and draw less international condemnation than a journalist’s assassination might. Those include digital threats, the use of spyware, the endangerment of sources through that, and the reputation destruction that goes on against critical journalists through orchestrated social media campaigns.

We have also seen, which is what brought me to my current role, the increasing use of legal attacks against journalists. That has grown over the years to include some of the more traditional moves like imprisonment of journalists under repressive criminal defamation and anti-state laws or arbitrary detentions but we're also seeing in a lot of places the use of “more legitimate laws” that are misused in a way designed to keep journalists from doing their work. That might include what people call SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation) - lawsuits that are brought with no basis aimed at disrupting the work of the journalist. In addition to that we're seeing legal attacks against journalists based on laws that have nothing to do with freedom of expression - for example, accusing journalists of tax violations or financial crimes. Legal attacks against journalists have been compounded in recent years by two other factors. One is the increase of online reporting and use of social media. We’ve seen the development of cybercrime laws that aren’t necessarily aimed at journalism, but the letter of the law can be abused to criminalize online reporting. The other development that has exacerbated the climate for journalism was Covid. Many countries put in place disinformation laws ostensibly targeted inaccurate information about Covid but in practice were used against critical journalism. Also, many governments put in place ‘state of an emergency’ decrees which give a lot of bandwidth to squelch freedom of expression.

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

I definitely see the legal threats as huge because they're very destructive in a long-term way. They don't just target individual journalists, but often whole media outlets, and they create a precedent that has a chilling effect. It's a deterrent to do any kind of strong public interest investigative reporting if you see how easily it is to financially devastate you or your media outlet. That's definitely up there but the truth is violent intimidation is still happening in high amounts. So while some of these other emerging threats are a huge cause for concern, one of the biggest ongoing threats is seeing journalists attacked with impunity.

Lastly, I don't know if I would describe it as a leading threat in terms of numbers, but one of the more alarming recent trends is the waging of attacks across borders. There have been numerous incidents of journalists who fled their countries and then were threatened, or killed; others face online smear campaigns at home or lawsuits in other jurisdictions.

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

I'm very proud of CPJ’s assistance program that I helped launch and my successors (Maria Salazar Fero and Lucy Westcott) have taken it to much greater levels. We established a strong program and just knowing that hundreds of individuals have been able to get help through it is extremely gratifying to me. In terms of a more lasting effect, it’s working on the impunity campaign. I'm part of an organization, so it’s not just me, and if anyone should take the credit, it should probably be CPJ’s former director Joel Simon who really spearheaded the project. We helped push this issue onto the global agenda and  contributed to an understanding that it was not just to media freedom issue but one impacting the broader human rights and SDG agenda.  

I also feel good about the work I did for International Media Support that helped identify good practices in developing national mechanisms that I believe still underpins some of the work in this area.

I’m very excited about my current project, the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk but it is still early days.

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

There are so many! Again, going back to the emergency work, there are always cases and situations that you look back on and think what you could have been done differently. Some cases didn't work out well. There are journalists that we tried to help that ended it up in very difficult situations. Those are really what my biggest regrets are about.

If I look more at the broader issues, I was very excited and idealistic about the UN Plan of Action. There have been some really positive outcomes from it, and UNESCO did an incredible, challenging job in getting stakeholders to work together on safety of journalists but it didn't result in as many concrete results as I, and perhaps others involved, had hoped. It's quite a large plan and there are many goals that have certainly seen impressive progress, but my regret is maybe in the earlier years of its development collectively we should have identified and worked towards a narrower, more specific set of goals.  I feel there's a missed opportunity there. For a moment there, in the years prior to Covid, the international community was relatively galvanised around safety of journalists. I wouldn't say that's all disappeared, but I would say we had a window to make something more happen and didn’t.

Is there something more that can be done about journalists’ safety and by whom?

If I could throw in one more regret, I'm thinking mostly of Afghanistan, but it applies to other countries - the difficulty of getting pieces in place for when a crisis erupts. That is something that press freedom /journalists’ safety community haven't done as well as we should. Afghanistan is a very unusual situation. On the one hand, things got dire extremely quickly and involved hundreds of journalists who needed to leave the country. There was incredible work done to get journalists out of the country but many did not get out and those that did are still in precarious situations. On the other hand, we could have done more in advance. So one of the bigger challenges now is how do we realistically prepare for when a crisis erupts and what that entails? Whether it's Ukraine or Afghanistan, what needs to be in place, identifying how we coordinate and don’t step on each other's toes. It's not being unaddressed - there is a lot of discussion about this at the moment among FoE and other human rights groups -  but if you are asking about one of the biggest needs at the moment, that would be one. Part of that equation is something that many press freedom groups have been campaigning for a while:  States need to create emergency visa programs for journalists at risk Some states have offered to do this, but we need to see more consistent efforts  and follow through in that direction.

With the rise of legal attacks, there needs to be more legal support for journalists and international attention to how legal systems are used against independent journalism. We are seeing this aspect of journalists’ safety strengthened and some new approaches. In addition to the work of Media Defence, which provides legal support, and the development of LNJAR [Legal Network for Journalists at Risk], there is Reporters’ Shield which is set up to provide legal insurance to media outlets and organisations are working to develop or strengthen national legal networks. But it is increasingly difficult to meet legal costs journalists face and lawyers representing journalists often face reprisals.

Another SoJ area that could be improved is more attention to journalists working outside major cities as well as advocacy around safety of journalists aimed at a more local level.

Often, the elephant in the room in journalist safety discussions is the lack of safety support from media outlets themselves. Many media outlets really don't do enough to protect their journalists. This varies country to country and outlet to outlet of course but over the years journalists around the world have frequently relayed that improved working conditions would have the biggest impact on their safety. This aspect of SoJ is included in the UN Action plan and the work of various stakeholders but it is a difficult one to address.

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

Something really valuable that I don’t see, although I don’t read as many academic studies as I should, is research to, hopefully, back up the impact of journalists’ safety on societies. As advocates, we make the arguments about how much better,  stronger, wealthier, or peaceful a society is with a safe and free press. Research that can really connect journalists’ safety to positive social outcomes would be helpful. Then, as someone who works now in a network and has been involved in networks in the past, research to connect the national/regional/international levels of safety support would be useful to better to understand how these connect together. Perhaps some country-specific studies of crackdown or crisis that take into account the outcomes for journalists and the overall environment  for media in those countries.

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

As I mentioned before, the plan is very broad and comprehensive, and there are good reasons for that but it would also benefit from a narrow set of specific objectives. UNESCO has worked hard in its country offices and on a regional level to advance SoJ projects with few resources and immense challenges but this work doesn’t always get seen by the broader stakeholders as part of the Plan’s implementation.

I am also a big fan of the recommendations that Agnes Callamard made when she was the Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings. Two proposals in particular. One is the creation of an international investigative body to investigate crimes against journalists. The other is a multi-stakeholder rapid response team to go in after an incident. When the Plan of Action was launched, this is the kind of action I envisioned. I would love to see her proposals incorporated into the Plan and implemented.

The other thing that might be helpful for the UN Plan is a little more conformity on what's considered a journalist safety mechanism as well as consensus on what’s the minimal obligation of a State - the minimal measures it should have in place addressing safety of journalists. Part of the problem is that once you start talking to stakeholders about what a national SoJ plan should look like it, it becomes very big very quickly. Maybe we need to start smaller and get a few nuts and bolts in place in a country before we attach the framework of a national plan.

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

Yes, very much. Currently my job is coordinating a network of organizations from around the world to provide legal support for journalists [Legal Network for Journalists at Risk]. That might entail combining financial support for legal defence and trial monitoring or referrals to legal expertise. We also look for opportunities to collaborate around ways to strengthen the legal environment for journalists, such as training in media legal issues or developing shareable resources. We also have member briefings on emerging issues or new legal support initiatives. I’m also part of the Journalists in Distress [JID]  network, which brings together those working emergency response to journalists under threat. In my earlier years at CPJ  I was involved in developing JID which has grown and become an important tool for organizations to work together around emergency support.

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

There are many and I wish I could name them all but to give a few off the top of my head:

Joel Simon is top of the list. He’s CPJ’s former director and spearheaded both CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program and the Global Campaign against Impunity that I worked on. So, if I’m a champion, he's like a super champion. He has been devoted in the field for over 25 years at CPJ and more recently with a new project he launched - the Journalism Protection Initiative. He has had a huge impact on safety of journalists not just for the work that he’s led on it but for his constant reevaluating of how the issue should be approached. There are also many other terrific colleagues I’ve worked with at CPJ over the years I could mention but it would take all day.

The organization I work for now, Media Defence, was one of the first to identify the seriousness of legal threats and the need for legal support long before it received the attention it has today. Its founder Peter Noorlander should be recognized for that along with its current CEO, Carlos Gaio (and the rest of the staff) for continuing to build legal support for journalists and fight for freedom of expression in the courts.

International Media Support worked in countries around the world to develop national mechanisms and national plans of action for safety of journalists. I can’t name all of the great people there working on this, but I’ll highlight its director Jesper Højberg who is singular passion for this work has advanced it tremendously and Susanna Inkinen whose work in Afghanistan raised the bar for all of us.   

Maria Teresa Ronderos, a Colombian journalist who is currently director of the Centre for Latin American Investigative Reporting (CLIP), has long been at the forefront of journalists’ safety. She was among the journalists and activists behind getting Colombia to establish a state protection program for journalists, perhaps the first national journalist safety mechanism to be created and often touted as a model for other countries. She has led various investigative journalism projects including investigations into journalists’ murders. Among her many roles, she served as Chair of Colombia’s Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP). FLIP itself should a champion for its work to protect journalists in Colombia, often emulated in other countries. In Latin America, I would also like to recognise Ricardo Trotti who during his tenure as executive director of Inter American Press Association did groundbreaking work on impunity, long before it was a global issue.

Silvia Chocarro as well. She leads Article 19’s safety work but has long championed safety of journalists at UNESCO and elsewhere. In particular she has led efforts to build a holistic approach to safety for women journalists and integrate a gender-specific approach.

Owais Islam Ali of the Pakistan Press Foundation has promoted safety of journalists in Pakistan for decades. He and his colleagues worked tirelessly to engage stakeholders to adopt and implement a national Plan of Action for safety of journalists in Pakistan.

And last but not least, without Guy Berger, former Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, it is doubtful there would be a UN Plan of Action for Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.