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Interview with Leon Willems, Free Press Unlimited, Senior Advisor International Partnerships

Free Press Unlimited is a Netherlands based international Press Freedom Organisation working in over 50 countries globally. Leon Willems initiated the International Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for the Safety of Journalists, which serves as a consultative group for the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the issue of Impunity. Free Press Unlimited is also one of the world’s leaders in emergency support to journalists in danger and is currently carrying out a cold case investigation project into journalist murder, a Safer world for the Truth. Free Press Unlimited promotes collaborative journalism for social justice and social accountability, fostering cooperation between Civil Society actors, Journalism and Government actors. Mr. Willems led Free Press Unlimited for 10 years, and his expertise includes strategy development, policy implementation and innovation.  Investigative journalism work includes the creation of Publeaks, Money Trail and investigating with Tempo.

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

I'm a former broadcast journalist who was myself reporting on issues in difficult countries, conflict countries and countries at war or repressive countries. The issue of journalists being killed or detained has been with me throughout my professional career. Then, when I joined the press freedom community, after a couple of years in Sudan, during the tough war, genocide and the aftermath of that with the UN Peacekeepers, I've been noticing that the threats to journalists have been increasing over the years. It has become gradually more and more important focus of our work at Free Press Unlimited.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

Journalists’ safety is the ability of a journalist to independently, unhampered gather news, bring together and assemble information and publish this information without harm or threats.

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

I think today there's not just one, but the most important new one is the increasing level of intimidation of journalists, trying to push them not to publish.

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

Free Press Unlimited, and myself, have been committed to increasing the level of safety awareness around the world, and one of our biggest achievements is, making this an important part of the Dutch human rights foreign affairs’ priorities. Also, the fact that we managed to establish a no nonsense, non-bureaucratic assistance fund, which at the moment assists over 2,000 journalists a year in danger, and pushing not solitarily but with others in the field, creating international coalitions to prompt states to do more on the issue. All those aspects I see them as big achievements. Maybe personally, my biggest achievement was the inclusion of the safety of journalists on the UN development agenda, which was something that I was asked to campaign for by my international colleagues. I thought this was basically not really well achievable, but we managed to do it.

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

Until today we are still pushing and pushing and pushing to prompt more proactive and preventive action to save journalists from harm. In spite of many of these attempts and many of these initiatives in some cases we successfully launched, we see that the majority of responses by states is to put money on the table to help journalists reactively, in other words, after they are in danger. To a certain extent, it is good that the international community has lifted the issue to a higher place on the agenda, but it doesn't lead to a more proactive, more pre-emptive, preventive engagement, looking at the introduction of laws that hinder journalists, not taking care of enough preventive security. The media industry itself has been lukewarm to really do what is necessary to protect journalists.

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

Yes, there's a plethora of actions in the international coordination of civil society groups that we started in 2015. We've come up with a very comprehensive program on how to improve the efforts on the safety of journalists on five terrains: digital and legal harms, national mechanisms for the safety of journalists, better monitoring, more action on impunity, and gender-based violence against women journalists. It's about these five terrains in which you really see that much more could be done, but not enough is done by states and institutions. There are good statements, good initiatives, and good ideas, but there is a lack of implementation on these five terrains.

Well, of course, there is also the media industry aspect. Do media industry actors, publishers, take enough care of the safety of the journalists who work for them? This is especially problematic with the shift of the chain of custody of accountability. So, for example, in the Netherlands, we see that foreign correspondents are replaced by local stringers, and then local stringers get harmed, but who is responsible? The accountability for what happens to journalists is still a problem. We also think that the media industry should be much more joined up in efforts to publicize what happens to them. That is actually something different [LW1] as you see that journalists find it as a kind of old adagium in the journalistic community that you don't speak about yourself. In other words, the story is the important thing, and the efforts that you had to go through in order to get the story are secondary. Journalists themselves think it’s part of the job, which creates a kind of a layer of acceptability about the fact that you're being threatened rather than raising the vigilance about it in the public domain, etc.

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

This is a very good question. First of all, there is a tendency to be focused on the legal aspects, mostly, and there is insufficient attention in the academic world towards the survival of journalism and how that actually limits the ability of journalists to operate freely and independently. The economic conditions have dramatically deteriorated over the past ten years. My personal view is that there is not enough academic economic research into the preconditions for journalism to thrive. This is especially true within the digital domain. It's especially problematic, the lack of research on the entire digital distribution system, and how it disproportionately benefits bad content, and downgrades quality and legitimate journalism content, which has an implication on the safety of journalists. That is a field which would require much more attention because wherever we go around the world, we see that the zeal of journalism, the missionary feeling of the need for journalism is always there, and there are always people who want to engage and who proudly accept that it's a difficult job. But the fact that they are simply unable to feed their families, that it constitutes in many cases voluntary work, that the revenues of that work are stolen by American companies. That sort of thing is a constant discouragement for the profession.

Another slowly emerging terrain where I think academia could be more interested is that there's still a good amount of countries and international agreements that merit freedom of expression and press freedom. But the willingness to fight for it and the political will to organize seems missing. It is a kind of human rights fatigue but also the feeling that geopolitically, pragmatism and real politics cannot be consoled or reconciled with principles and values that are important. And let's say, in the world of today, the interesting aspect for some time is: is safety an individual issue? Or is it also a collective or group issue? In other words, safety of outlets, safe workspaces, but I think your division of four main dimensions of safety – physical, psychological, digital and financial - makes a lot of sense. I also would value it if you have those four areas and then matrix them down with a timeline leading from prevention to protection; that would be interesting. The idea that legal measures alone will organize a better world is questionable. There's a lot of focus on it. And, of course, there is a growing trend of increasing legal inhibitions for journalists to conduct their work. In our emergency funds, we also support journalists who are being targeted by legal threats, but we see it as only one of the threats that is happening.

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?

We need implementation. Free Press Unlimited operates on the basis of a theory of change, and in our period of change on safety, three or four aspects are really important. One is that you organize safety locally and not internationally. International guarantees mean nothing. If there is no local implementation and if you look at how this pans out in the availability, for example, of resources, then you see very clearly that the safety of journalists is not a priority in most countries in their annual rule of law agenda. There's no specific knowledge. There is a lot of political controversy in most countries, even in democracies. And so, the role of local civil society organizations in monitoring, raising attention, asking accountability for threats to journalists is super important. But we see that the UN Plan of Action has not led to local implementation enough while experimentation with national protection mechanisms, experimentation of multistakeholder platforms where people talk about this show that it's possible, even in the most challenging countries, to create progress and improvement, but it's not supported at the local level. So a lot of international attention has really raised these safety principles and standards, and the UN Plan of Action then leads to consecutive adoption of nice statements by the UN Secretary General and celebrations of press freedom. But we don't see support for these very important local civil society actors and develop their capacity to campaign for this. There is not enough money, development money, resources, capacity, research, data, availability of computer science, academia, and local academia that would enable for civil society to campaign better for local implementation of safety mechanisms and guarantees. We believe that from a theory of change perspective, the political enabling environment struggle needs to be focused there. Civil society and citizens need to understand why it's important. And the journalists themselves need to understand and campaign and raise attention to it. The interrelationship of enabling environments, civil society and local academia and other actors in creating progress towards better safety and better protection mechanisms is something that is unfortunately not yet happening. So, we don't see systemic change. What we do see is more emphasis on high-priority cases, and more attention for individual stories that are happening and that sometimes has an effect. But they are not systemic effects. So basically, the UN Plan of Action is under-resourced and not systemic enough in its approach. It's not about the intention. For example, we work with UNESCO, which we think is a very good thing that UNESCO does, is raising the awareness of judges and prosecutors on the peculiarities of journalists’ threats and how that is being used by people in power to attack the dissenting voices and how you can be aware of that. They organize meetings between judicial actors, and we support those exchanges of knowledge by bringing journalism voices, etc. There's a lot of initiative, there's a lot of proof of concept, there's a lot of experimentation, but it's under-resourced, and it's not yet so systemically implemented. That is basically because the enemies of press freedom are gaining strength in international fora like the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, etc. There's a growing collective learning going on between the enemies of press freedom.

Are you interested in collaborating with other organisations and people working in this area? If yes, on what specific issues?

Oh, yes, but we already do a lot of work in this regard. We initiated global coalitions. We did an initiative with the International Association of Prosecutors and Legal Actors. We are working on a more comprehensive legal defence with actors. We are part of an alliance to raise more awareness for the safety of women journalists, which is a growing issue. One of the things where we really think we are missing actors is the digital platform actors. There is a lack of escalation channels for people being threatened and a lack of self-regulation on the protection of the dignity of journalists and the protection of journalism content, for that matter. Our approach to improve the safety of journalists is really focused on trying to bring people together who can influence this product and not just shouting and saying things are bad. There's a place for that too. There are organizations that are very good at advocacy by naming and shaming. We have a kind of a different approach, and we have a kind of dynamic advocacy logic. We try to do what is missing from other approaches. One of the things that we are really excelling in is bringing the local to the international level.

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

The overall feeling sometimes is that when you talk about journalists’ safety, you're talking about a waterbed. You try to solve one issue, and then somewhere else, problems pop up. It's a complicated terrain. One of the cultural dimensions around the fight for the safety of journalists is that the overall appreciation and necessity of the work of journalists within societies needs to get a higher priority, and it's very difficult because you know that the image of journalism is not so super, people put all journalists in the same bin. They don't make a distinction between agitators, polarizing paparazzi journalism and quality journalism, often do not distinguish disinformation efforts from good journalism. It's the overall perception of freedom of expression being synonymous with journalism that blocks the perception of what real good journalism is, which should be working under its own rules and ethics. And because these principles are not always followed by all the people who are acting in the profession, either because of pressure, or because of lack of training or professionalism, or lack of independence, the problem is that this creates this public image: can we really trust journalists? That is a big cultural problem that journalists themselves don't debate enough about, in my view. This is definitely one aspect that I see as very problematic. We are an NGO, we are an advocacy group, we're activists. We campaign for journalists, but we see that journalism lacks self-criticism too, and that is not necessarily our place to point them to. There should be an internal mechanism, an internal debate about the course of journalism and the protection of journalism in the long run, and the ethics surrounding it. But we see that there could be much more media industry interest, journalism interest in keeping each other accountable and organizing that public trust that is vital in raising the levels of protection and prevention of those that need to be protected and to prosecute those that are involved in threatening journalists and journalism. That is a kind of a complex societal issue. It needs much more thinking, and unfortunately, the digital revolution has made this only more problematic, and the artificial intelligence discussions are very likely to erode that trust further. That is a difficult point, really a brain breaker.

Have you got any suggestions for other champions of journalists’ safety that we can interview or any content that you feel can be incorporated into the website?

I know a very remarkable woman that you could maybe interview. Her name is Annie Zaman and she has a very hands-on approach to journalism, saving people directly in danger. She works out of Thailand and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar. She works for us, but not exclusively for us. She also works for others. She has a very local perspective. That is a real champion.