By William Horsley, International Director of CFOM

Uğur Mumcu, a renowned Turkish investigative journalist and columnist for the leading newspaper Cumhuriyet, was murdered just 28 years ago, in a car bomb explosion on 24 January 1993. The perpetrators of that crime have never been brought to justice, but Mumcu’s death has been the focus of public commemoration in Turkey. Mumcu defined journalism as the medium that ‘talks about struggles in all areas of life’.

A gathering in Turkey on the memorial day of the murder of investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu.

Those words ring true just as clearly today. The struggle for survival of independent media across the world has grown more acute in our age of information overload and media capture. Many political leaders want to transform the role of the media from that of a ‘public watchdog’ that holds power to account into propaganda weapons for their own advantage.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the world’s media freedom map is growing darker. Over 380 journalists are now in jail, many of them in China and Turkey. Nowadays journalists face the highest risk of being killed not in war zones but reporting on corruption and crime in their own country.

Last month the UN Secretary-General declared that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic ‘media workers have been subjected to increased restrictions and punishments simply for doing their jobs’. Those reprisals take many forms including violence and judicial harassment.

Another symptom is the corruption of national systems of justice due to political interference. In Europe, the mafia-style murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017 and of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia in 2018 are still unresolved. Those responsible have not been punished. Both those journalists had dared to investigate and expose high-level corruption.

A Mission to inform: Journalists at risk speak out, co-authored by Professor Marilyn Clark of the University of Malta and myself, highlights the stories of 20 investigative journalists in Europe who have faced threats and danger on account of their work, told through extensive interviews.

One of them is Can Dundar, who was himself the respected editor in chief of Cumhuriyet until 2016, when he was called a traitor and put on trial for his journalism. Like Uğur Mumcu, Dundar dared to expose arms smuggling and misuses of political power by reporting on the secret transport of weapons to armed groups from Turkey into Syria. Can Dundar spent several months in detention and faced the risk of a very long jail sentence, but he managed to flee to Europe. In his lengthy interview two years later he forcefully accused European governments of failing to protect journalists like him, because he said they chose instead to appease the Turkish government for reasons of political expediency. ‘Europe is not brave enough to defend its principles’, he said.

Memorial of murdered investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu.

Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova described how she faced a vicious smear campaign, gross invasion ofher privacy, and a long jail term for exposing high-level corruption. She too bitterly criticised the failure of western leaders and institutions who proclaim their commitment to the freedom of the press but were unwilling to help her when she needed it most. Now she is freed but still barred from doing journalism and travelling abroad.

However, the struggles of Can Dundar and Khadija Ismayilova are also an inspiration to others. They show that even in the worst situations courageous journalists are determined to reveal the truth to the outside world. In Belarus, since mass protests began after fraudulent presidential elections last August, hundreds of journalists have been arrested. Many suffered beatings and injuries by police. Nine journalists are in jail charged with pubic order offences that can lead to long sentences. Still the protests continue with huge public support and the reporting goes on.

Globally, two recent developments provide fresh hope that the struggle of journalists can always succeed against the censors and the enemies of press freedom. The first is the media’s capacity to use hi-tech methods and cross-border cooperation to conduct complex investigations into corrupt practices and abuses of political power. The Panama Papers investigation by journalists in over 70 countries used teamwork, encrypted communications and data analysis to expose a massive global scandal in 2016. The investigations led to political resignations, criminal investigations and reforms to make banking more transparent.

And the revelation that Russian secret service agents tried to murder the opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny last year came to light thanks to Bellingcat, a private investigative organisation. Bellingcat used metadata and flight records to show that Russian operatives tracked Mr Navalny’s movements to the place in Siberia where he was poisoned by novichok last August. The whole truth came out after Navalny telephoned one of the agents and recorded his admission that the agents had smeared the nerve agent on his underwear in his hotel room.

A second source of hope lies in the words of the new US President Joe Biden. In his inaugural speech last Wednesday Mr Biden said: ‘We must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and manufactured’. He added that leaders have a duty to ‘defend the truth and defeat the lies.’ During Donald Trump’s presidency the Washington Post registered more than 20,000 false or misleading statements by Mr Trump.

The task of restoring respect for accuracy and truth, in public discourse and in the media, must start with the re-building of democratic mechanisms that hold governmental power to account. Key among them is the freedom and independence of the press. RSF and other monitoring organisations are concerned that even in countries with strong traditions of respect for press freedom, many leaders have emulated Mr Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and sought to criminalise the activities of journalists.

However, in 2019 about 40 UN member states formed a Global Media Freedom Coalition. Those countries signed a public pledge to speak out and take action together to ‘defend media freedom where it is under threat’, and so to ensure that people everywhere can have access to free media, not only to information which is pleasing to those in power.

Who will make sure that the leaders of this coalition will fulfil their promises? Fifteen leading international lawyers were appointed for that exact purpose to a Panel of Legal experts on Media Freedom.

This Panel is attempting energetically to strengthen the enforcement of accepted international legal standards for protecting media freedom and the ability of journalists to work without being attacked or being treated as criminals.

The International Bar Association is supporting the vital work of this panel of lawyers. The panel has issued ‘Enforcement Reports’ encouraging the use of international sanctions against the enemies of press freedom, and the creation of ‘emergency journalists’ visas by countries that are prepared to provide safe refuge abroad for journalists at risk in their home countries; they also propose the setting up of a permanent and well-resourced international Rapid Response Task Force of trained investigators to ensure that the perpetrators of journalists’ murders are brought to justice.

Those investigators could, for example, be deployed to investigate in cases such as the killings in recent years of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Daphne Caruana Galizia in Mata, and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia. The top lawyers on the Penal of Experts also demand that states in the Coalition must demonstrate political leadership as ‘champions’ of media freedom, and prove that they are following up their promises with action.

More than half of the Media Freedom Coalition are European states, including France, Germany, Italy and the UK. As the struggle for media freedom and against authoritarian government enters a new chapter, leaders of those countries are called on – in the words of Can Dundar — to show that Europe is ‘brave enough to defend its principles’.

This article is an extended version of one that was published in Turkey’s BirGun newspaper on 24 January; the Turkish text can be read here.

Photo: Dogan Tilic