Please tell me a bit about yourself, and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety.
I'm a Professor in Journalism at OsloMet University, where I co-head the research group Media, War and Conflict (MEKK) and lead some international projects on the role of media and journalism in war and conflict. I did my master’s thesis in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, and subsequently my PhD attached to the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, and have had the pleasure to work internationally ever since. My concern for journalists’ safety emerged from this global approach, particularly as I commenced a faculty position at OsloMet’s journalism department where the perspectives of practitioners are highly valued. This happened at about the same time when increasingly more scholars and journalists started to recognize the importance of exploring journalists’ safety, also in more academic terms. I had previously been working with UNESCO and the IPDC and followed their work in the field of journalists’ safety closely. Upon the initiation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, we were several colleagues who felt the urge to contribute. In 2015 our research group organized its very first international conference on the safety of journalists at OsloMet.
How would you define journalists’ safety?
At its core it’s about the ability of journalists to carry out their work, free from any kind of hindrance or violence. It is interesting to see how the understanding of journalists’ safety has developed the last years in tandem with the changing nature of attacks, and that the concept of safety continuously more is linked to the entire journalistic work process. Also, the last years, there has been increased awareness among scholars of the need to include groups such as photojournalists and fixers when researching journalists’ safety. At our annual conferences on journalists’ safety at OsloMet, we approach safety in a rather holistic manner and have been discussing dimensions including digital threats, challenges to journalists covering demanding beats as environmental issues or pandemics, workplace safety and salary, gendered violence against women journalists, as well as challenges and possibilities of journalists in exile, to mention but a few. With some colleagues, I recently co-authored an article in which we deliberated on the prospect of considering journalists' safety as an autonomous academic field. Our conclusion suggests that journalists’ safety probably remains a subfield within journalism research, even as this emerging field draws upon distinct methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and citation networks embedded within various academic traditions.
I truly believe the Nobel Price award of 2021 to brave journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov was a game changer in terms of influencing the global public's perception of the importance of the safety of journalists. The recognition drew major attention, highlighting how journalists’ safety can serve as a pointer towards media freedom and democratic development in general.
Which threats do you perceive to be the biggest ones that journalists face?
Today, as of January 2024, it seems difficult to remain unaffected by the extreme violence and loss of journalists’ lives amid the ongoing war in Gaza. According to a report from IFJ, the war in Gaza has proven to be more deadly for journalists than any singular conflict recorded by the organization since it started documenting journalists killed in the line of duty in 1990. Since Hamas’ attack on Israel the 7th of October 2023, more than 80 journalists and media workers are confirmed dead and many more are wounded and missing. Reporters Without Borders have currently filed two complaints with the ICC for war crimes against journalists in Gaza during this period. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has taken a severe toll on journalists since the full-scale invasion started in 2022.
The last years I have been concerned about the worrying development that increasingly more journalists are attacked because they are journalists. This phenomenon is observed even in established democracies which historically perform well in terms of media freedom and freedom of expression, but where the media now are under attack from populist parties at both ends of the political spectrum. The violence directed at them has led some journalists to engage in self-censorship, showing a reluctance to cover particularly sensitive subjects and this is a direct threat to freedom of expression and our democracies.
Another, and partly related, worrying tendency is the explosion of online violence against women journalists. Research shows how across continents women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men, and ICFJ and UNESCO further show how 20% of those targeted with online violence are also targeted with offline abuse in connection to it. Digital violence against women journalists is very effective as many make themselves less visible by self-censoring as a result. This phenomenon is still difficult for the justice systems to grasp. It is extremely distressing that those behind the attacks on journalists are very seldom prosecuted. The global impunity rate for journalists’ killings remains appallingly high.
What do you consider to be your biggest personal achievement in the area of journalists’ safety?
Collaboration with colleagues! I am grateful for excellent cooperation with a great number of colleagues in Norway and internationally, and I am particularly thankful for my colleague, Professor Roy Krovel, with whom I jointly lead the MEKK research group. It is amazing to see how our annual conference on the safety of journalists at OsloMet has become such a vibrant arena for collaboration and exchange: A platform where international scholars, journalists and people from journalist organizations meet, discuss, collaborate, and share experiences. The conferences have also resulted in a solid body of research disseminated through a diverse array of scholarly articles, special issues of international journals, and anthologies. As a result of excellent collaborations with various colleagues, the subject of journalists’ safety has now been integrated into several courses at the bachelor’s, master’s and PhD levels at OsloMet University. We even have dedicated an entire PhD course to journalists’ safety, named ‘Safety Matters’. In this course, PhD students collaborate across borders in a programme organized in partnership with wonderful colleagues from Brazil, South Africa, and the United States.
Another achievement in terms of collaboration is my involvement in practical Training of Trainers courses, conducted in partnership with Eva Stabell and the Norwegian Union of Journalists. Over the past few years, we have been organizing Safety and Equality courses tailored specifically for female journalists in both English and French speaking African regions. Following the courses, the female journalists then go back to their respective media houses, where they share the knowledge acquired with their colleagues. I engaged with such a group of women journalists in Ivory Coast just a few weeks ago. It’s incredibly encouraging to collaborate with these journalists, sharing promising practices in promoting equality and safety. There are so many courageous, inspiring women! And speaking about inspiring women: Powerhouse Julie Posetti and colleagues’ pioneering initiative to develop an Online Violence Early Warning System as a response to targeted attacks on women journalists is highly promising. The project aims to adopt a novel strategy for monitoring, predicting, and ultimately preventing gender-based online violence – before it escalates into offline abuse, harassment, and physical attacks. It is a great privilege to be a part of the advisory board for such an ambitious project, surrounded by a wealth of skills, strength, and positive energy.
What is your biggest regret in the area of journalists’ safety?
This likely must be related to time – that there is never enough time, coupled with the feeling that we should have initiated this endeavour even earlier. I don't spend a lot of time on regrets, but I cannot ignore the thought that we could have started awareness-raising efforts at an earlier stage. There’s a realization that we should have been more attentive to the influence role and power of the tech companies and social media platforms in promoting digital violence, spreading hate and disinformation, fuelling conflicts, and posing threats to journalists, along with recognizing the gendered dimensions of these issues. Perhaps, if we had initiated academic research, analysis, and campaigns aimed at predicting and pre-emptively addressing escalating attacks at an even earlier stage, lives might have been solved.
Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety and by whom?
Yes, indeed. 2024 is called the most significant election year in history, with approximately 2,6 billion people casting their votes in over 50 countries globally. It is imperative that journalists are not subjected to attacks or hindered from reporting freely while covering these elections.
Governments must take extra measures to protect journalists’ safety and to guarantee the right to freedom of expression and access to information during electoral periods. Similarly, major tech companies should assume their responsibilities and enhance their efforts in this regard. Fortunately, there is something many of us can contribute: by supporting journalists, exchanging experiences, and collaborating. We need increased cooperation across borders and disciplines to establish strong alliances for improving journalists’ safety.
What could academia contribute to this process of improving journalists’ safety?
Academic knowledge, scientific data, and solid analysis may serve as constructive frameworks to counter disinformation, conspiracy theories, denial, hate and intolerance. Furthermore, academic research can be instrumental in developing comprehensive risk assessment models that take into account various factors such as geopolitical situations, local contexts, and specific threats journalists might face. As AI increasingly allows us to handle real big data, research can identify large patterns and trends in attacks on journalists to inform preventive measures and develop technologies such as secure communication tools, encryption methods, and other digital security solutions. Furthermore, academic research can investigate how attacks on journalists affect public discourse, access to information, and the functioning of democracies. Academia is a fruitful starting point to ensure that journalism students receive training in the subject of journalists’ safety, as well as in utilizing new technologies to secure their work. As evident from our annual conferences at OsloMet, an academic setting may also very well serve as a hub – a shared space and a meeting ground for practitioners, researchers, and activists who work together to improve journalists’ safety.
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?
The Plan of Action is crucial in order to put the issue of journalists’ safety high on the agenda globally. I think one of the primary challenges as of today is linked to effective implementation of the plan at the national level. Countries may face obstacles in translating international commitments into actions, especially in regions where press freedom is under threat. There may be a need for better mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan's implementation across different countries. I believe that encouraging greater global cooperation and solidarity in implementing the plan can strengthen it.
Are you interested in collaborating with other people and organizations working in this area and if yes, on what specific issues?
Absolutely! Our research group already do a lot of collaboration and are enthusiastic about doing more. We are for instance excited to be part of the organizing committee of the academic conference at the UNESCO 2024 World Press Freedom Day Conference in Santiago, Chile. Also, when planning our annual conferences in Oslo, we constantly seek new perspectives to the topic of journalists’ safety, and people or organizations to include in the discussions. Last November our main focus was the safety of journalists working in the field of environmental journalism. We sought input from our collaborators and actively looked for individuals specializing in this field. This resulted in several interesting new connections, some of whom actively participated in the conference. By collaborating on specific issues, we pool our expertise and resources and maximize our collective impact. In the upcoming year, the conference’s main topic will be the safety of journalists covering elections, and we look forward to exploring new partnerships!
Do you have any recommendations for other champions of journalists’ safety?
Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders is amazing!