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Interview with Lucy Westcott, Committee to Protect Journalists, Director of Emergencies Department

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

I am the Emergencies Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. I have been at CPJ for five years, the entire time in the Emergencies Department. Before I joined CPJ, I was a journalist in the more traditional sense. I was a multimedia reporter for a number of US-based news outlets, including Newsweek and The Atlantic. When I was a reporter, press freedom and journalism were actually one of the things that I reported on, so I was very familiar with CPJ. And the reason that I joined CPJ was because I noticed a gap when it came to journalist safety in the United States. This is at a time when the previous administration of President Donald Trump was coming into being, and it was very striking to listen to and watch his attacks on the press take place in a country that is a democracy. I noticed as well that while there was really good training available for journalists going into conflict zones, really high-risk situations, there wasn't so much training or information available for journalists who face danger on a day-to-day basis. I joined CPJ in order to really investigate that further, and then developed a project around what I call non-hostile environments. CPJ focuses on three things: advocacy, awareness—which is reporting and the documentation of press freedom violations—and then assistance. For a long time, we had a journalist assistance programme which gives grants to journalists in need. That was then incorporated into the Emergencies department, which has existed for about seven years now. We focus entirely on journalists’ safety. We provide grants to journalists facing emergency situations because of their journalism. We provide safety, information, and consultations as well to journalists around the world.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

We really focus on three main areas: physical safety, digital safety and psychosocial safety as well as your mental health. These are always overlapping, and you often have to look at the holistic view of safety. Obviously, conflict zones and war reporting are on the fairly extreme end of the spectrum of journalists’ safety. And we do, of course, pay attention to that type of safety, and we have resources available for those journalists reporting from those environments as well. But we are very focused on, for example, covering protests. What to do if you are arrested while covering a protest or while you're reporting and face online harassment or threats in response is a very big part of the work that we do around digital safety at CPJ. We have developed and share digital safety tools aimed at really trying to lessen the harm if something bad happens or is escalating online. Mental health comes into it as well. Since COVID-19, in particular, journalists have covered many overlapping news stories while themselves living through the pandemic, which has been, at times, really difficult, heavy, traumatic, and it does have a toll. The way that we can respond at CPJ is usually through again, information, direct one-on-one consultations or workshops with larger groups, and then, when needed, grants to cover things like legal support, trauma support, and relocation support.

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

There are many. There's obviously an enormous ground war currently happening in Ukraine, and that has resulted in the deaths of 17 journalists, according to our reporting, both local journalists and international journalists. But one thing that we are really focusing on is journalists who go into exile. That's a huge part of our work. Often they are fleeing because of the safety threats against them. So, if we look at the global picture, we have ongoing conflicts. We have journalists fleeing their countries because of threats against them, arrests of their colleagues, and the killing of their colleagues as well. And then, everywhere around the world, we see online harassment and threats against journalists online being a huge threat.

What do you perceive to be your greatest achievement in the area of journalists’ safety?

The whole of CPJ is very invested in keeping journalists safe. Not only through the assistance that we do as part of the Emergencies’ team, but the advocacy work that we do shines a spotlight on journalists who are at risk. The reporting we do means people are able to read about arrests against journalists, and it's a protective measure to have these stories reported on. If we are reporting on a journalist, it gives them support because that piece of reporting is out there. In terms of the biggest achievement, one of the most important things that we've done at CPJ in terms of journalists’ safety is to really have online harassment be recognized as a real threat. For a while, going back a few years now, threats to journalists’ safety were really only seen as this physical threat: Someone is going to attack me, someone is going to arrest me. It's the physical space. That’s where the threat is. Actually, broadening the definition of journalists’ safety to include these other things is a real achievement and helps journalists to understand that they can seek help and there are resources available to them because of that. The online threats made against journalists because of their work do have a physical outcome as well. Having that recognized very widely and helping to contribute to having that recognized widely is a real achievement.

What is your biggest regret in the area of journalist safety?

The threats against journalists - that there are so many journalists at risk. I regret that the situation is so bad for people who are just trying to do their jobs.

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

A really big and underappreciated aspect of journalists’ safety is how it's connected to this idea of trust in the media. During the early days of COVID-19, trust in the media, according to different research, really increased because it was this new global pandemic, people needed information about it, and they got that information from journalists because they needed the news; they needed reliable information. Since then, as life has kind of gotten back to normal, trust in the media has declined once again, and we're at a point globally where people don't always realize or fully understand the role of journalists, the job of journalists. This has a direct impact on their safety. We have world leaders calling journalists, fake news, liars, traitors, enemies of the people, and that filters down, and then that comes out in attacks against them. The big overarching existential problem is declining trust in media, the public needs to have a much better understanding of the role of journalists in society and in protecting democracy. I hope it isn't going to get worse. In terms of newsrooms, making sure that the editors are really up to speed on safety threats, making sure that journalists feel empowered to do their jobs safely, and that their newsrooms and management and editors also have that information and can help them do that. And then, for freelance journalists as well, it's the same. We know that freelancers are often at more risk because they're operating alone. They lack the kind of traditional structure of the newsroom. Making sure that they also feel empowered and have the right resources to make themselves feel very safe is important.

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

I'm a big fan of having more data on everything. If we think about journalists’ safety globally, there's always more data that we can use in order to better advocate for safe conditions for journalists. There’s a number of really fantastic studies that have come out of places like the International Center for Journalists, from UNESCO over the past few years, which have these very powerful statistics. For example, 73% of female journalists have faced some form of online harassment. This can only help us when talking about this issue and raising awareness about it, so I would say that academia has the time, space and expertise to do these larger studies and that it would be very useful.

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?

An incredible amount of work has taken place over the past ten years on the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. It is admirable. However, it’s also unfortunate that this work is so necessary and that the safety of journalists continues to be a pressing, evolving problem. It's, of course, something that's very, very welcome to have championed at a UN level. In terms of impunity, of course, there's always much more that can be done. Our statistics show that 8 in 10 cases of journalists who are killed, those cases end up with no one being held accountable. That has a knock-on chilling effect where others can see that nobody was held to account for the killing of the journalist. That's an area where there can always be more work done.

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

We already do a lot of collaboration. I'll highlight the role that we have in our journalist assistance work, for example. We at CPJ could certainly not do the work that we do alone, and we work constantly with partners. The JID network deserves a special mention. We do a lot of collaboration on that work because there’s some parts of general safety and assistance that we cannot provide, for example, equipment. But other organizations can. So together we are able to fulfil those needs. If we look at advocacy as well, we often partner with other organizations to make sure we can fully raise awareness about the case, and it's particularly important to collaborate with local news organizations or NGOs who really have the expertise and are doing the work on the ground.

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

Just that, I would encourage everyone to go to and look at all of our great work: everything from the news alerts and statements that we put out to our safety resources as well. We try really hard to keep our resources up to date, to respond to the needs of journalists and where they see the gaps, and we always welcome ideas around that.

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

Have you contacted Julie Posetti? She would be amazing. I admire her and her work so much. I cited her organization’s report. She's really at the forefront of the online violence space. On that note, the Coalition Against Online Violence is another good one to reach out to you. CPJ is part of that. It's a lot of organizations. That is a very good example of approaching an area of journalists’ safety with experts from other industries. Online violence is not obviously just about journalists; it's women, it's people of colour, not only in journalism but the gaming industry, politics, and gender-based organizations as well. I think they might be interesting to you.