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Interview with Sheryl Mendez, Freedom House, Senior Program Manager for the Global Fund for Human Rights Defenders

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

My name is Sheryl Mendez, and I'm the Senior Program Manager for the Global Fund for Human Rights Defenders at Freedom House. I've been in this role for about a decade, and before this, I worked at the Committee to Protect Journalists on journalists' safety and the Journalists' Assistance Desk. I've also been a co-founder of the Crimes War Project, documented attacks on journalists and others in the context of war and provided training and education on crimes of war for the media, which came out in the book Crimes at War That the Public Should Know in two editions. Throughout the work that I've done in support of human rights defenders, including journalists as well as media outlets, citizen journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders broadly defined, I've worked both in the capacity of providing emergency support worldwide through our team both at Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists as well as working with partners and networks on issues of impunity and safety of journalists. For example, in the Fall of 2014, I and several partners, including the Rory Peck Trust, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others, came together regarding the need for dialogue and regular interactions with media organizations worldwide when journalists were at risk. From those moments in the Fall of 2014, partners and many others, including media organizations, stood up the Culture of Safety Alliance or ACOS Alliance. Also, I was involved in the initial discussions and collaborations, which later formed the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR) because we saw a gap in developing relationships with a variety of different legal experts given the rise of the use of lawfare or criminalization of journalism through the misuse of laws and lawsuits (SLAPPs). We saw the need to fill that gap and partner with legal experts and others who might be able to contribute to a longer-term accompaniment of legal cases since these often take several years, and journalists and media outlets often face multiple charges and penalties. Freedom House is an active member of the Journalists in Distress Network (JID), a global network of press freedom organizations that provide emergency support to at-risk journalists, media workers, and media outlets. We've been members for more than ten years. JID is an excellent example of a long-term collaboration that occurs daily between different network organizations. The work of JID and its framework has also been instrumental in discussions on the design of other networks, such as the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), housed at Pen America, a global network. It's been a long-term accompaniment, looking to partner and open and hold space for partners, including on development issues, for example, that may affect media reporting on development, whether it's IMF or World Bank Funds, who may experience repression. Freedom House also helped to organize and set up multiple webinars under the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF) so that those voices can be put forward in that space to discuss the closing of space for the media worldwide. Freedom House has worked with partners to design and present their work to the Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), a global network of private human rights funders. Freedom House arranged several HRFN webinars to bring attention to issues related to media freedom, and also the cross-sectoral issues that affect human rights defenders as well as journalists and media, and how these two worlds are impacted by closing civic space - the human rights funding world often has an absence of voices from media freedom and safety of journalists sector and Freedom House actively works to bring attention to the nexus between these sectors.

How would you define journalists' safety?

Journalists' safety includes the ability of journalists to be independent, to be able to carry out their work freely, to have access to information, to be able to hold, whether government or no- state actors accountable, and to interrogate issues that are within the public domain, of public concern. Journalism is a public good, so it should be supported. There shouldn't be any restrictions upon journalists and journalism in the course of their duties, especially not criminalizing either their work, using tactics such as labeling them as terrorists or associated with terrorism, or using, as criminalizing defamation, libel, slander, or charging them with blasphemy, which could lead to the execution of journalists and others. Journalists' safety also includes safety according to one's identity as well as gender, both in one's work and in the workplace. Journalism is the bedrock for all other fundamental freedoms, so recognition of that and journalists' safety also includes calling out when journalists are under attack, whether through legal means, [judicial and legal harassment], physical attack, or in the killing of journalists. State authorities should conduct effective investigations and prosecutions into attacks perpetrated against journalists, bringing perpetrators to justice, including the masterminds behind the attacks. The chilling effect of attacks on press freedom also has a detrimental impact on democracy. It emboldens assailants to silence the media, which often leads to self-censorship among journalists.

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

Often we see reporting on physical attacks on journalists, including the use of torture – physical and psychological, and it's crucial to report on that. It's also very important where we see the misuse of laws to call this out not only to the governments who may be going down this path but also to allies of those governments, including allies who may be, on the one hand, expressing the need for media freedom, and yet, have relations, or turn a blind eye when journalists are attacked. Journalists' protection and broader human rights protection and issues should always be included.

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

I've always worked to bring sectors together and often start conversations on protection gaps, often following working a case of a journalist or a human rights defender who may be at risk. It leads to a conversation, which partners and we often take forward when gaps in protection are identified or trends may be emerging, such as the use of financial crimes lodged against journalists. For example, following conversations with the now Director of ACOS (then the Director of UK-based Rory Peck Trust, Elisabet Cantenys), in the Fall of 2014, we worked together with other partners to bring media freedom, journalists and NGOs in the same room by early 2015 to discuss media protection and the need to collaborate with media outlets, this is today's ACOS Alliance. That's also true for the Artists at Risk Connection. The initial conversation started with Karin Karlekar at PEN America - we identified a gap in worldwide coordination to support artists at risk. At that time, there was no such global network, so if I could provide an emergency grant for an artist (broadly defined to include writers), where are artist residencies or placements? Where is that network that is similar to the Journalists in Distress Network? Karin took that forward, and today you have a vibrant global network and programming through PEN, today's Artists Risk Connection (ARC) network. Also, on the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk, our partners and we had been conducting trial monitoring. We realized the gap in legal expertise and the need to open a dialogue with legal experts and organizations focusing on the law and media freedom. Given the rise of legal tactics used by state and non-state actors, there was a need for greater understanding. My role has always been incubating things or asking questions like: Hey, where is this network? Do you know anything about this issue? This also ensures that we work in collaboration and not in isolation and also open up or hold space for others. But then ensure that others have that space and that we're only sometimes directing, moderating, or otherwise where it's not necessary when we can facilitate those impacted to speak in their own words and on their own lived experiences directly.

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

One of the things, it's evident after many years, is where there is political will. I've seen support by various governments, for example, happen in including closed or closing civic spaces because there was political will. Political will facilitates immediate assistance, relocation (when for example, a journalist is at risk in their country), or issuance of expedited visas or statements on the persecution they face, including arbitrarily arrested or imprisoned. My disappointment is often when political will or politics may get in front of the bedrock of all fundamental freedoms - press freedom and freedom of expression. When the silence on attacks on the press is deafening, I would like to see greater rigor both by states and also other interests - private interests, including corporate and social media accountability, and accountability of other non-state actors with a full-hearted, full-throated recognition, not only of media freedom during World Press Freedom Day but also the public acknowledgment of the need for independence of journalism. When journalists or other media workers, etc., outlets are under attack, whether on the legal side, physical, etc. States should follow these cases, attend journalists' trials, speak out and identify violations and call out impunity.

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

Journalism as a public good should be supported by states, fully supported, and we know that. The journalism business model is sitting in a challenging situation worldwide. But supporting journalism as a public good doesn't detract from the fact that it should be and always remain independent. Advocacy in that area is crucial. Also, there are various funding mechanisms or grants for journalists, media outlets, and others related to legal expenses, but it's often short-term. We work with partners to lengthen the pipeline of legal support because many of these cases take years. If a case goes to an international court like the European Court of Human Rights, this may take up to 10 years, but there has been this drive to create these legal funds. The funding is needed longer term, even if it's a year or two years or more, and a commitment to accompany throughout the life of a case.

Various partners do this, like Media Defence based in the UK and the American Bar Association's Justice Defenders Program. There are many others, but private or public funders also need to understand that they shouldn't just be funded in a rapid response context alone. These are issues which are long-term, including due to the rise of SLAPPs or the misuse of other legal instruments. There still seems to be this concentration on immediate short-term funding. Look longer term, including supporting media development and developing a partnership between rapid response and sustainability. There's also a recognition of power dynamics as well. Finally, not to hold all of the funding in the global North because often, whether we're talking about the broader human rights funding landscape or media freedom, these funds are often predominantly held in the global North and then distributed out. There should be openness by funders also to be open to calls for proposals from civil society on what the needs are rather than the other way around where civil society is working to apply for funder-directed projects and activities. Getting past this idea of activities would also be helpful; many funders recognize this. But I still need to see funding for core expenses for many of these media outlets and media organizations and press freedom organizations worldwide at local, regional, etc. levels. Funders still talk about that, but I've seen very few funders do this with their work and what they fund. It's still a talking point and idea, except for funders such as the Sigrid Rausing Trust, which provides core funding for up to 10 years. Core funding should be standard, and security should be a line item in every budget where any media freedom organization, or others, are funded. That needs to be, without dispute, a budget line item in full recognition of the threats they face.

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

I am not an academic, but in academia, there is rigor in research and framing, and there may be time to look deeper into the different issues that one may be exploring and the art of such. Regarding journalists' safety and threats such as using SLAPPs, what is the progression and timeline for its rise by State and non-state actors? We all saw that as it developed over the years. We also had seen years ago when different countries were backsliding on media freedom and other fundamental freedoms, including when groups voiced their concern about Hungary years ago. And now look where we are today, or Poland, among other countries. There are areas, including the criminalization of journalism and this use of lawfare, where the ecosystem would greatly benefit from a framework including data collection. Also, for all of us to learn as we document cases of attacks on the press and in journalism, and the needs and even the movement of journalists when they can't stay in one's country or if they're moving to another area in the country or a neighboring country what that looks like, or if there's transnational repression. There are situations where there's surveillance that crosses borders. All of this is if we start to look at a collaboration under some of these areas with academia. They're also well-documented. That might also help the press freedom community, and the general safety community, whether on advocacy or the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Even if there is some way in our documentation, even on emergency grants, to have guidance or accompaniment on how we should be tagging. We tag according to other fundamental freedoms, whether civil, political, economic, social, or cultural; the type of defender: whether it's a journalist, whether it's a media outlet, whether it's a citizen journalist, or a blogger, etc.; the type of threat; the assailants... but they're fundamental, and it would be helpful to have a template as different organizations and media freedom advocates are collecting these data. It will be helpful when it needs to be pulled out for the UN, whether for Special Rapporteur or your one's own work. It would be difficult to consolidate things without specific indicators for the organizations collecting this data. Let's say a journalist is at risk because of the misuse or use of 'Article Number X' from a country's Penal Code; just having that information and seeing has been used across multiple charges against journalists or criminal code. Some of those specifics do exist. Some may not be captured but could be captured if there was an awareness. The more specific details, the better, and obviously, that's also outside of not only legal and judicial harassment or misuse of laws such as SLAPPs, but with other types of laws that journalists and others face like restrictive NGO laws, foreign funding laws, foreign agent laws, Cyber Libel and other cybercrime provisions, charges of espionage, treason, and foreign influence, Lese majeste and seditious libel, counterterrorism, and anti-extremism. There is much we could learn from and in collaboration with academia on best practices for documentation.

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 are a little over ten years in. Media freedom organizations and civil society have put together the Vienna Call to Action Plan to improve the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists. Civil society shared these recommendations in November 2022 in Vienna on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the launch of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity (UNPA). Partners of the International Safety of Journalists Coalition worked a great deal in implementing commitments made in 2012 at the start of the UN Plan. Recommendations and suggestions result from much thought and learned experience over those ten years and prior. It would be best to start by reviewing those recommendations and observations. 

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

Yes, I believe Freedom House as an organization would be interested, as well as our Emergency Assistance Program, on these issues related to legal and judicial harassment, among other areas, because that's something that we interface partners on, including the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR). "Lawfare" is one of the most insidious areas where actors not only seek to silence the media but also create a chilling effect that leads to self-censorship. It sometimes leads to a significant financial burden intended to break the media and media outlets. We would be interested - including the misuse of financial crimes charges lodged against journalists and media outlets investigating corruption, etc. And then they're facing whether money laundering charges and tax fraud as two examples. And again, this is often a tactic by state or non-state actors to silence media/press freedom, call into question their independence, and call into question journalism. We are also seeing the misuse of the Financial Assets Task Force (FATF) by States to harass civil society organizations, including media and press freedom NGOs. The danger is also how the public views journalists and journalism when these cases come up where journalists are accused of financial crimes. Where does that sit with the public on trust? It also involves a very different set of lawyers - tax lawyers, etc., lawyers with experience, which the press freedom/media freedom ecosystem has yet to engage with significantly. In some instances, like Maria Ressa's case that has occurred but there has to be a greater understanding of these different types of attacks - who the allies are, and also the importance of financial support for these media organizations and journalists who are dealing with these types of legal attacks that those type of charges also significantly escalate the costs if you're now dealing with tax lawyers. That's why we need this companionship, including with academia, looking at the challenges, and who are those experts in that area to start having engagements with these allies.

Anything else you would like to share with us?

It would be interesting also to look at the human rights kind of protection landscape broadly because often, as I'd mentioned, whether it's human rights funders or areas where there may be attacks related to human rights defenders, and because often there may be a kind of a firewall between journalists and human rights defenders. It's not to say that the journalists are activists, etc. It's just to recognize that journalists are considered human rights defenders, have similar protections, and face similar threats. There are conversations to have with human rights funders and donors, such as the Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN). HRFN is a network of private donors from family foundations to various other foundations. It is vital to educate funders and raise awareness on the intersection of attacks and oppression on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and media freedom and how that intersects with other fundamental freedoms. And even if donors' work and funding is in one area of human rights, they are not directly funding media freedom; for example, they may be funding land and environmental issues. Often, I've had many cases of journalists and media reporting on land and environmental issues that were then at risk due to this coverage. It is essential to start to educate donors on these intersections. I think the Human Rights Defenders Network, a global network of funders, would be open to that, and we're members, and many other of our partners are members. We also recently introduced IFEX, who's become a member. That's a vast network. We must also start working on opening and holding that space for these discussions. It would be interesting to bring in academia before these audiences.

Any suggestions for other champions of journalists' safety that we can interview or for content that can be incorporated onto the website?

Elisabet Cantenys. She is now the Director of the Culture of Safety Alliance, ACOS alliance. She was formerly the Director of the Rory Peck Trust, supporting freelance journalists worldwide. She also was one of the early founders of the Journalists in Distress Network many years ago, and she has vast experience on these issues and collaborating and seeing where these next may be.

Also, Silvia Chocarro of Article 19 is very active in the International Safety of Journalists Coalition, which feeds into the Media Freedom Coalition, which is held by states through UNESCO and interacts with UNESCO.

There are so many champions. Ginna Anderson is also a Senior Legal Counsel, Director of the American Bar Association's Justice Defenders, and a Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR) member. They work on many of these areas affecting journalists and media freedom related to the misuse of laws and legal instruments.

The Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) based in Istanbul also champions journalists' safety. They are almost the sole source for deploying legal counsel representation, trial monitoring, and conducting prison visits for journalists and media outlets in Turkey. Also, they do a lot of reporting on attacks, and many other organizations, including international organizations, report on MLSA's reporting and trial monitoring and amplify it worldwide. MLSA's trial monitoring and documentation greatly informs the reporting of multiple media freedom organizations and networks worldwide.

IFEX is a critically important network with over 100 member organizations spanning 70 countries. IFEX addresses cross-sectional issues on freedom of expression, media freedom, etc., and other areas that affect network members and the landscape across the board, including protection and amplifying issues and voices of those at risk due to their journalism.

There are a variety of others on the Journalists in Distress Network (JID) who are always deeply entrenched on the broader issue of journalist safety as well as ensuring that there is engagement, including Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), among others. Also, TrialWatch - the Clooney Foundation. It is very important again to be monitoring trials of journalists at risk and bring attention, as does the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR), which TrialWatch is a member of, also bringing attention to when lawyers are assimilated as their clients because that is also a trend that would be interesting for academia as well to look at. When journalists are at risk, whether legal or judicial harassment, we see all over the world; then, actors go after their lawyers. That is a significant data point to follow because it occurs regularly. It's also an insidious way to shut down journalism by going after the lawyers, including in areas where many lawyers have to flee and have limited access to legal representation, even if it's not direct interference. Still, it's shutting down legal remedies.