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Defending Press Freedom Today: New Tools New Challenges
May 4, 2015
Author: Anna Lekas Miller
  
On Sunday May 3, the Samir Kassir Foundation launched the 2015 Beirut Spring Festival, a month-long series of events commemorating the ten year anniversary of Samir Kassir’s assassination, with a panel discussion entitled Defending Press Freedom Today: New Tools, New Challenges.
 
What are the challenges of protecting journalists – and journalism, as a profession? How do we negotiate government surveillance – particularly as more and more journalistic tools are beholden to mobile technology? Who is a journalist? Is there a difference between a media activist, a fixer, a citizen journalist and a journalist, or are they the same? Do they all deserve protection? How do you protect and defend freedom of expression in every venue? It is all fine and good to have safety precautions, but, as an organization, what do you do when someone is truly in danger?
 
These were some of the many – often difficult – questions asked on a panel featuring Cheryl Gould, board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, Sarah Giaziri MENA program officer at the Rory Peck Trust and Ayman Mhanna, director of the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, and moderated by NOW’s Hanin Ghaddar.
 
During the lively – and at times contentious – discussion that ensued, the panelists agreed that, in an age where any citizen can pick up a cell phone and commit an “act of journalism,” it is professionalism that will be the best safety net. However, as the media is changing, how to best adhere to this standard of professionalism is changing as well. Ayman Mhanna described the free journalist medical and hazardous environment safety trainings that SKeyes has recently organized for journalists – and was mostly attended by freelancers. Sarah Giaziri shared the Rory Peck Trust’s guidelines for journalists going into conflict zones, and emphasized the importance of journalists taking the responsibility to have robust communication plans.
 
Most answers alluded to the fact that journalists, particularly in conflict zones, are increasingly freelancers, and their protection – whether it is learning first aid or having an emergency plan – is their responsibility, as opposed to their organization’s, despite often stringing for big-name outlets. As news outlets commission more and more freelancers to replace staff members and even correspondents, maintaining a professional standard of journalism becomes an individual, rather than an organizational responsibility.
 
Another important discussion looked at the issue of hostages, how best to advocate for their release – whether that is a media blackout or making as much noise as possible – and, the frustrating double standard for how the media treats western versus non-western hostages. While James Foley and Austin Tice have become household names, what about Samir Kassab, a Lebanese cameraman kidnapped in Syria and the numerous other local journalists that have been kidnapped by ISIS and other terrorist networks, killed by regimes or caught in the crossfire? Where is the justice for them and their families?
 
As a “coalition of organizations” what is the best way to ensure that press freedom is upheld, and the work of journalists who take risks and encounter danger is not in vain?
 
“Mostly, we focus on stories that we know,” said Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship, a London-based organization publishing censored work of artists, journalists and authors. “What is more disturbing is what we don’t know. The result of jailing journalists and laws curtailing press freedom is that stories don’t get out. As organizations, we must work hard to get out the stories that are not getting out.”