June 18, 2014, TURIN, Italy (Philstar) – In the darkened auditorium in this Italian city, some forum participants could be seen dabbing at their eyes while others could be heard blowing their nose.
It wasn’t anything in the air in the 90-year-old former Fiat automobile plant that is now the Lingotto Conference Center that made the delegates misty-eyed the other day. What touched the audience was the speech by a Swedish journalist who spent time in an Ethiopian prison for “terrorism.”
I have attended several of the annual gatherings of the World Editors Forum, where a Golden Pen of Freedom is traditionally awarded to a journalist who embodies the continuing struggle for press freedom around the world.
The typical participants in this forum are senior journalists who tend to be hardened and even jaded to suffering. Monday’s event was the first time that I saw anyone moved to tears by a colleague’s story.
“The first screams were always the worst,” Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye began his personal story of life in Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison. He would never be free of those screams, he said.
He described regular beatings, of inmates being hanged upside down. In the detention cells they were packed “like slaves” and had to sleep on their side. “Once a month an inmate leaves with his feet first,” he narrated.
More than the torture and disease, Schibbye recalled, the hardest part was “the fear of speaking.”
“It’s not the guard towers with machine guns that keep the prison population calm. It is the geography of fear. People who speak politics are taken away. They disappear,” Schibbye recounted. “It went under my skin… I would wake up wondering if I had said something against the government in my sleep.”
The Ethiopian government continues to toss critical journalists in jail for “treason” and “terrorism.” Schibbye served only 14 months of his 11-year sentence. He and his photographer Johan Persson were pardoned and freed in September 2012. But Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, on whose behalf Schibbye accepted the Golden Pen of Freedom, has been in prison since his arrest in 2011 and may have to serve his full 18-year sentence.
Nega was initially joined in prison by his wife, who in her 17 months of incarceration gave birth to their son. She at least has been freed and is currently seeking asylum in the United States.
“They will never break him,” Schibbye said after reading a letter written by the Ethiopian to an older son.
Even if they have robbed Nega of almost all his freedoms including “the freedom to drink or eat, and even to shit,” what they can’t take away from him is the freedom to be what he wants to be, Schibbye said: “Eskinder is a journalist. And every day that he wakes up in the Kaliti prison is just another day at the office.”
“It’s not us that are fighting for his freedom,” Schibbye said as he concluded his speech, “but rather he who is fighting for ours. Ayzoh Eskinder! Ayzoh!” (The Ethiopian word means “be strong, chin up.”)
Most Filipinos have forgotten the systematic torture of political dissidents during the Marcos dictatorship and may not care what happens in Ethiopia, seen as a hopelessly failed state.
Unfortunately for us, however, instead of being detained and tortured, Filipino journalists are simply killed.
Journalism in the Philippines, as in other countries, also faces new threats that have emerged as technology allows states, private groups and crime gangs to monitor digital communication, and as governments invoke national security to clamp down on press freedom.
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Journalists are facing traditional threats in delivering the news in places where civil liberties are currently being curtailed, such as Thailand and Ukraine. But because of the war on terrorism and because states are increasingly equipped to increase surveillance of individuals, press freedom is under threat even in its traditional bastions: the United States, the UK and other Western European nations.
At one of the sessions here, Associated Press president and CEO Gary Pruitt narrated how the American wire agency cooperated with their government in May 2012 and deferred publication of a foiled al-Qaeda bomb plot in Yemen because, AP was told, certain individuals could be compromised and lives could be placed at risk.
Later it was learned that the US government had secretly seized AP phone records including text messages to find out who leaked the story.
Aghast over what Pruitt described as one of the worst intrusions in its 168-year history, AP asked the US Justice Department to safeguard the records and strengthen their rules governing such cases. The US government agreed and promised that no journalist would be prosecuted for doing his job.
It was good to know no one would be sent to jail “for committing journalism,” Pruitt said, but the incident “created a very real chilling effect” on AP’s sources.
The British press, for its part, has not yet recovered from the phone hacking scandal, which has paved the way for UK officials to impose rules that tend to curtail press freedom.
“We have gone from hero to zero,” said Guy Black, executive director of the UK’s Telegraph Media Group. “Where once we could draw on our history of free speech, now we are held as a shining example that we are shackling the press.”
Why are trends in the US and UK worrisome? As Claudio Paolillo of Uruguay noted, Latin American journalists used to look up to the American and British media as models of press freedom. “Not anymore,” he said.
Worse, Paolillo said, the moves of the US and British governments to curtail press freedom in the name of national security were inspiring despots. The attitude, he said, is, “If the US can do it, I can do it too.”
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I know prominent Filipinos who think the Philippine press could use tighter regulation, but government intrusions on journalists’ work can quickly get out of hand.
Borrowing a line from Winston Churchill, Pruitt reminded the audience, “The media is the worst check on government except for all the others. It’s all we’ve got.”
What can journalists do in the face of increasing government surveillance even in Western democracies? Panel moderator Kai Strittmatter of Germany urged the audience: “Let’s not start getting used to this. Let’s not find some of these things normal.”
“All our freedoms stem from (press freedom),” Black said. “We have to fight.”
Eskinder Nega is doing just that, in the worst conditions. He is showing, Schibbye said, “that they can jail journalists but they can never succeed in jailing journalism.”