Journalists facing deadly risks

Photojournalist wearing a gas mask covers civil unrest in Cairo.  Image Alisdare Hickson

Not for the first time, I’m ruminating about the deadly risks facing journalists working in conflict zones or countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or even India.

It’s 1am and I’m reading the Guardian Weekly, starting with its world roundup, where my eye is drawn to a headline: “Indian journalist beaten to death.” In just 100 words we are told that Shantanu Bhowmick’s death at the hands of a stick-wielding mob brings the tally of reporters killed in India since the 1990s to 29.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlines the risks facing individuals in India who have made Right to Information (RTI) requests. Since the law came into force in 2005, at least 69 people have been murdered after they filed RTI requests. Another 130 journalists have been victims of assault and 170 reported being harassed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 1,746 journalists and 104 media workers have been killed world-wide since 1992.

What makes these statistics more compelling is that the majority of deaths were not random: a motive was confirmed in 1,253 cases.

The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a list of the riskiest countries in which to work as a journalist. The list is based on the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Eritrea is No 1 on the list of regimes which censor the press and the Internet, followed by North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba.

There are 23 journalists behind bars in Eritrea. None has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. The Internet is available, but only 1% of the population goes online, using slow, dial-up connections. Only 5.6% of Eritreans own a cell phone. In North Korea, 9.7% of the population have (official) cell phones but an unknown number have phones smuggled in from China. A few individuals have Internet access, but schools and institutions are limited to a tightly controlled Intranet.

The CPJ says tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries.

“To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.”

This was not helping my insomnia. I turned to page nine, to reporter Joshua Robertson’s full-page coverage of Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. The story includes interviews with residents of Warwick (Queensland), apparently the last bastion of the ‘No’ vote.

Robertson went to an un-named club in Warwick, a town of 15,000 on the Southern Downs, to interview un-named people about the town’s apparent reputation as a ‘No’ Vote stronghold.

“The bible says it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it,” one woman in the club said, chiding her husband, who was yet to make up his mind.

The reporter also travelled to Roma, an oil and gas town in western Queensland. He interviewed a public servant who said he felt more comfortable being “out” in Roma that in Sydney or Melbourne.

Meanwhile in Queensland

As news assignments go, Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary would not fall into the category of risk that faced Shantanu Bhowmick or the other 44 foreign journalists and media workers killed so far in 2017.

These global statistics make the life of a working journalist in Australia look comparatively benign. But not so if you accept an assignment to file news reports, video or images from conflict zones. In 2015, Australian journalist Peter Greste laid a wreath at a new memorial in Canberra recognising the contribution of war correspondents. It was fitting that Greste was chosen for this honour as he’d not long returned to Australia after being imprisoned in Egypt, along with Al Jazeera comrades.

The memorial in a sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial honours 26 war correspondents killed in combat zones. They range from William Lambie (Boer War 1899-1902) to cameraman Paul Moran, killed during a suicide bombing in Iraq, 2003. Also named is sound recordist Paul Little, who died in a German hospital in 2003 after being caught up in an ambush in Iraq. Also laying a wreath in September 2015 was Shirley Shackleton, widow of Balibo Five reporter Greg Shackleton, one of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975.

And Australians might want to think about these crucial issues of press freedom and the right to information. On Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners, still the best in the business, sent a reporter and producer to India to dig into the background of conglomerate Adani. It was a good example of journalists taking risks in risky territory. The Four Corners team were grilled for five hours by ‘crime branch’ police after filming at a controversial Adani-owned site. Four Corners investigated Adani’s environmental record and business probity because the Indian company wants the Australian Government to provide a $1 billion loan to underwrite the world’s biggest coal mine in western Queensland and associated rail and port infrastructure.

Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary, meanwhile, reminds us that not so very long ago, the State lived under a repressive regime. In 1989 the last criminal charges were brought (in Roma) under Queensland’s homosexuality laws. These were the last days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime (1967-1987), an era when news gathering or protesting was riskier than they are today.

As one of the thousands of bearded, long-haired men who joined their saffron-robed women, wafting about King George Square in a cloud of patchouli essence and acrid cigarette smoke, championing anything that was anti-Joh, I suspect my photo is in a dusty Special Branch file somewhere.

Journalists working in Queensland through the Joh-era needed a Press Pass, which had to be shown whenever entering government buildings. I still have my pass, signed by the former Commissioner of Police, Terry Lewis.

Wonder how much that would be worth on eBay?





Travel without regrets

la traffic
LA freeway photo by Jeff Turner flickr

Dedicated readers will know by now my penchant for tinkering with numbers, so you won’t be surprised that I have done an inflation-adjusted calculation on my/our travel adventures over 45 years. O.M.G. We could have bought a second home, or a third; a luxury yacht, a Maserati or achieved the mythical $1 million retirement target.

New Zealand is Australia’s most popular outbound travel destination – 1.06 million went there in the year to March 2015; 483,000 for a holiday, another 603,000 on business or visiting family and friends. The next most popular outbound destination, according to Austrade’s Tourism Research Australia, was the USA (590,000 holiday makers and 286,000 people doing business or visiting family and friends). In third place was Indonesia (830,000), then Thailand (596,000). The UK is up there, with 510,000 Australian visitors. In all, 8.81 million Australians travelled overseas, for holidays, for business or to visit family and friends.
The other 15 million or so stayed home.

Ignoring travel alerts

Surprisingly (well, I was surprised) 77,000 Australians went on holiday in the Middle East and North Africa in the year to March 2015. There’s a risk/reward equation that probably adds a frisson of excitement to travel in unstable regions.
Egypt (population 91 million) attracts tourists who have the Pyramids on their bucket lists. Wikipedia says Egypt attracted a record 14.7 million visitors in 2010, but numbers have dropped significantly since 2013, due to civil unrest and travel warnings.
Reader M took her teenage sons to Egypt in 2008, “for an education”. It was also a rite of passage, as she had travelled there in 1985. She has no plans to return to Egypt, however, disillusioned by the lack of progress in that country since visiting 23 years earlier.
“Back then Egypt was pretty much culturally secular and was atmospherically a wonderful cross of east meets west. Many women wore the head scarf but an equal number did not. Cairo was cosmopolitan, with French, English and Italian influences. People were open, educated and friendly and the country looked affluent.

“Fast forward 23 years and nothing had been progressed in the country. In fact, a real sense of stagnation was evident. Not a road mended or a building finished….. Every woman was covered and there was pollution and filth everywhere.
“Where previously we were invited to people’s homes and the conversation was about global issues, politics, religion and family, this time the conversation was one-way rhetoric-driven, narrow, politically driven. The difference was staggering.”

Renovate or travel?

So far, we have not been that adventurous. In 1990, we’d been doing the sums on a major renovation of our 1930s colonial in Annerley. We planned to claw the $20k back from mortgage payments as we’d been keeping ahead of the game. Suddenly, in 1991, I found myself between jobs, with two months’ leave before I started the new one. We took our son (aged 9) out of school and spent the $20k on a tour of the US, Canada and New Zealand. We parlayed with the boy’s teacher – he had to keep a journal and make notes of all the amazing things he saw (Niagara Falls, the bilingual McDonald’s in Montreal, the Grand Canyon, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Giant Redwoods, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (more on that another day), and Fort McLeod, birthplace of Joni Mitchell (and She Who Planned the Itinerary). We hired a 20-foot recreational ‘ve-hicle’ (RV) from a depot at Anaheim and set off on the LA Freeway at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. What were we thinking? I later counselled son that “Mum and Dad were screaming in the car” was not the sort of diary entry his teacher would appreciate.

No regrets at all

Looking back, you never regret the money spent on travel, even when it was shitty; when the digs were below standard, when you all had head colds and the exchange rate was unfavourable. I remember nosing the RV into a parking spot at the Grand Canyon lookout. Our son got out, ran over to the rim of the canyon (it was almost sunset) and went “Wow”. We all went “wow”. He took an amazing photo with a cheap Kodak camera. We drove right around the canyon in the next week, shopping at Native American roadside stalls, talking Aussie to people, feeling light-headed from the rarefied air. A lasting family dinner-time catch phrase stems from overhearing this at an Arizona RV park all you can eat buffet:
“Hey Hank, you wants any more?
“Nope, if I eats any more I’ll be sick.”

US road trip

We rattled across four states in that big RV. The odd highlight (for me) was parking it in a 500-lot RV park in Las Vegas, getting a complimentary shuttle bus to the casino, winning $17 on the slots and queuing up for the $3.99 all you can eat buffet at Circus Circus. I tried to persuade SWPTI to get (re) married in an Elvis chapel (you can do that in Nevada), but she couldn’t get out of Vegas quick enough.
Every time we stopped for a meal at a roadhouse or diner, the wait staff would fuss over our boy and say “make him tark”. We did three days at Disneyland, drove up the coast to San Francisco, took a tour to Alcatraz, went camping in national parks, hugged a redwood, made sure we stored our food in bear-proof lockers. We drove across the desert in the RV we dubbed “Horse with No Name” and nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning because someone left the rear window open.
We ended the adventure the way it began, stuck in a 90-mile traffic jam (between Vegas and Anaheim).

Those inspired to travel reading books by Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Bruce Chatwin and such probably see travel as M does − as a pilgrimage (religious or not), to experience the journey for itself and to walk in other people’s shoes.
Others have a list of famous places, or a list of risky things to do in said places (e.g. running with the bulls at Pamplona, climbing Uluru or bungy-jumping off the Kawarau bridge at Queenstown).

Uluru 02 LW
Photo by Laurel Wilson

On our first visit to the Red Centre, we arrived at one of the elevated spots where one can watch the sun set over Uluru. There were a lot of people there, complete with picnic hampers, bubbles, wine glasses, cameras and mobile phones.
Anyway, the sun began to sink and the rock started changing colour; it should have been time for a bit of hush, right? Not for two old blokes from Queensland who spent the entire time talking about how the Broncos were going and who’d win the State of Origin. They’ve come to this ancient, spooky place and can’t handle the feeling they aren’t really supposed to be there. So they drown the feelings out with white fella tribal talk and a few tinnies.

Next day we walked past 30 people waiting to climb the Rock (the climb was later closed because of high winds), which doesn’t excuse the wannabe climbers from ignoring the wishes of local Aborigines.
We took the Mala Walk around Uluru and I wished I’d gone before I left because (hint for others), there are no public toilets on this 11km walk. Apart from that, it was stunningly beautiful; a bit overwhelming, really.
As travel probably should be.