On Wednesday the 9th of March, our correspondent Maria Persson Löfgren was brutally attacked while working on a reporting assignment in the Russian state of Ingushetia, almost two years to the day after our Asia correspondent Nils Horner was brutally murdered in Afghanistan. Two completely unacceptable events.
Maria Persson Löfgren was on a reporting assignment and Nils Horner was in Kabul to monitor the forthcoming election. Two normal assignments for a foreign correspondent. This job is demanding, it is tough and it is sometimes associated with danger. We should be thankful that there are people who want to engage in this kind of journalism, for it is through them that the rest of us receive alternative images of a reality that is often much more complicated than those governing in a country would suggest.
The issue of the safety of journalists must therefore be taken more seriously internationally. Ceasing to cover troubled areas is not an option - in an increasingly digitized world, it is very easy for extremist groups and others to spread their propaganda. Without journalists on site there would eventually be no other images to counter the propaganda, which is exactly what these extremist forces and sometimes undemocratically elected regimes want to achieve. Today, therefore, journalists in many countries have become legitimate targets of hatred, threats, kidnappings and in the worst cases, even murder.
I am incredibly relieved that Wednesday’s incident nevertheless ended relatively well. Maria Persson Löfgren and other members of the group with whom she was travelling received only minor injuries in the attack. They are of course very shaken and shocked but it could have ended much, much worse.
Last year 111 journalists and aides were killed, according to figures from the International News Saftey Institute (INSI). The days when journalists could namely be left to do their work unharmed, even in very dangerous and difficult conditions, have long since passed. The figures for 2015 confirm a trend that has unfortunately become the rule rather than the exception. But figures from INSI also show that the vast majority of the journalists who were deprived of their lives last year were domestic journalists, i.e. local journalists who spent their everyday lives trying to bring those responsible to justice for their crimes, abuses of power and corruption. Of more than 100 journalists who were killed, around half lost their lives in a country that is currently peaceful.
It is shocking and deeply tragic that almost everyone who performs these gruesome deeds can do so with impunity. Very few are arrested and very few are punished. Nine out of ten perpetrators go free. The UN has adopted a number of resolutions but no major changes have taken place and the situation is not improving. On the contrary, developments are moving in the wrong direction, as shown clearly by Wednesday’s incident. Maria Persson Löfgren was in an area where foreign journalists have never been attacked. This adds yet another location to the list of areas about which we must now think a little harder before we decide whether we can return to describe, review and monitor.
I support the association Reporters without Borders in their demands that the UN should appoint a special envoy responsible for driving issues concerning the safety of journalists. If extremist violence cannot be carried out inconspicuously, journalists active in the field must be protected against attacks. A special envoy could accomplish a great deal given a clear and strong mandate. However, a more decisive action from ordinary politicians is also required. Especially politicians in well-functioning democracies. In Sweden, the Swedish freedom of press is 250 years old this year. This is an excellent opportunity for Swedish representatives to raise the issue of the safety of journalists even more strongly, in as many international forums and contexts as possible.
Talking is not enough. Swedish foreign aid could also be linked to this incredibly important issue. Aid money can be donated to build a free press and free public service media, but also to support organizations involved in providing safety training for journalists and their colleagues. Organisations which, thanks to this assistance, could train local journalists free of charge.
Furthermore, questions about whether a country guarantees freedom of the press and of expression and about how many journalists have been killed or imprisoned in the country should be raised on each state visit.
The issue of the safety of journalists is a security issue affecting the entire world. Remote monitoring of troubled areas in journalists’ own countries or in other countries is not an option. Independent monitoring requires journalistic presence - without it, we risk a future where extreme propaganda organizations gain a greater dissemination and legitimacy.
Director-General Sveriges Radio (Swedish Radio), EBU Board member, member of the jury for the UNESCO Press Freedom Prize and member of INSI's steering committee