International Press Institute gathers in Taiwan for media freedoms


Palestinian journalists hold a stretcher carrying a camera and bearing a portrait of Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana during protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah against his killing in the Gaza Strip on April, 20, 2008. The International Press Institute, a media watchdog, condemned the killing.


Abbas Momani

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The fight for press freedom around the world has never felt more urgent.

The number of journalists killed, detained, threatened, harassed, jailed, sued and silenced while doing their work continues at a torrid pace. This year there were a total of 82 journalists killed so far, and all 82 of the names were scrolled across a black screen during a moment of silence that opened the International Press Institute World Congress here on Sunday.

This year the list of the fallen included many journalists covering the Arab Spring. One of them, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed April 5 when Libyan troops closed in on him along with GlobalPost's James Foley and two other journalists. They had all been traveling and working together in the intense days at the height of the armed uprising against the Libyan regime. Hammerl was shot and killed by Libyan soldiers of the now-deposed government and Foley and two colleagues were taken at gunpoint and detained for 45 days before they were released.

Most of the names on that somber scroll are largely unknown outside their own, under-reported corners of the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some of the names are more recognizable, such as the internationally acclaimed photographer and innovative journalist Tim Hetherington who was killed in Libya earlier this year. Tim was a great colleague who I knew from the field and will always wish for time to have gotten to know him better.

All of those named were heroic and all of them deserve to be recognized, particularly by those of us in the American media who too often whine about an economic downturn in our industry and too often forget about great journalists who have risked it all to do courageous reporting every day of the week in places like Sri Lanka, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

IPI not only honors the fallen, but also those who are very much alive and kicking.

A team of reporters from an online news site and broadcaster in Tunisia called Radio Kalima was recognized as this year's "Free Media Pioneer." When Radio Kalima's staff was targeted for their aggressive coverage of the collapsing regime of President Ben Ali, they went underground and continued with unflinching and enlightening journalism from clandestine locations.

Two people were named IPI "World Press Freedom Heroes" this year. The first was the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I met Danny covering Pakistan and will never forget the day in January 2002 when he was taken hostage and later killed, the gruesome image of his slaughter released on videotape. It was fitting that Danny was remembered this year so soon after the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which truly changed the game for all of us reporting in the field. IPI also honored the noble, veteran South African journalist Raymond Louw, who has long been a champion of press freedom and journalists' rights. The former editor and publisher of Southern Africa Report and editor of the anti-apartheid newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, accepted the award "on behalf of all of you who do this courageous work every day of your lives."

This is the second time I have attended the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress, a gathering of 300 top journalists, editors and publishers from around the world. There are some 50 countries represented here.

It's an impressive conference. A place to re-consolidate efforts to fight for press freedom around the world and to honor those who have risked everything in pursuit of those freedoms, but also a meticulously planned and productive conference that assesses the state of journalism globally in a time of great change and tumult. The panels and speeches here have enlightened and informed about the extraordinary challenges, growing uncertainties and extraordinary opportunities that the digital age presents.

BBC's Director General Mark Thompson, who is responsible for overseeing the vast resources of the BBC's news division, offered a reminder to journalists around the world to embrace this time of great change, but to stick to the old-school values and virtues of journalism and for reporters in the field to take it upon themselves "to do the right thing."

In a speech titled "Why Quality Journalism Matters in a Digital World," Thompson spelled out three threats to journalism as we know it. They are: the economic challenges faced by deteriorating business models for traditional media; the speed of the internet changing the dynamic in a "do it yourself" culture of WikiLeaks; and a threat posed by a lack of fact checking and probity particularly in an era of technological change which allows news organizations unprecedented abilities to ferret out information. The latter concern was raised in the context of the News of the World phone hacking scandal and the devastating impact it has had on the empire of Rupert Murdoch and the soul-searching it has caused in the world of journalism, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Thompson issued a stern word of caution for these times amid a global bombardment of "information" that is not necessarily journalism and that too often comes at a cost of information that has "quality, value and significance." These days, he said, IPI and organizations like it have to fight for the right not only to press freedoms, but also to "freedom of access to information that has quality, value and significance."

IPI Director Allison Bethel McKenzie delivered the IPI's annual report, which is always sobering and often surprising. For example, topping the list this year as the most dangerous country for journalists to work in was not Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. It was Mexico where 11 journalists were killed covering the violence of the drug cartels. A total of 34 were killed in the Americas, making it the most dangerous region in the world for journalists to work. In Turkey, a country emerging as a greater leader on the world stage, tops the list of those that routinely detain journalists. According to the report, Turkey currently holds 70 journalists in jail. Twenty-four journalists were killed in North Africa this year, compared to eight in 2010.

It is significant that the IPI gathering this year is being held in Taiwan. Ying-jeou Ma, President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), delivered the keynote address at the opening ceremony on Sunday where he delivered a thoughtful speech about the journalists around the world who "courageously criticize those who wield power."

And Ma spoke of a free press as "the cornerstone of a democratic system." It is a particularly resonant theme to strike here in Taiwan which has emerged from a repressive government and strives to maintain its independence. In a flourishing of free media here, Ma said that more than 2,000 newspaper licenses have been issued and scores of cable television channels have been created since 1988, the year when the ban on opposition political parties was lifted and a new era of democratic elections was ushered in.

He described the connection between a free press and a functioning democracy as "the virtuous cycle."

But commerce counts, too, as he was quick to explain, and as those of trying to build news organizations in these trying times know all too well. It was in the closing of his speech that he began to extol the virtues of Taiwan's aggressive capitalist society and invited us to see the Night Market. He ended with this request: "Please do as much shopping as possible."

I don't have enough time here to help the president out with that plea, but I definitely believe in "the virtuous cycle."

(Charles M. Sennott is the Executive Editor and co-founder of GlobalPost. He blogs at GroundTruth and his column appears regularly on GlobalPost.)