Journalists facing deadly risks

journalists-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?

 

 

 

 

North Korea – 21st Century Missile Crisis

North-Korea-Missile
Workers in North Korea tending crops on Migok Farm, Sariwŏn. Photo by ‘Stephan’

If you’re old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, you’re probably less inclined to see the North Korea/US standoff as a prelude to the End Time.

In October 1962 (I was 13), President John F Kennedy and his Russian counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, arm-wrestled over Soviet missile sites built on Cuban soil. Russia had taken steps to build missile silos on Cuba as a response to similar US installations in Turkey and other central Europe locations. As Cuba is just 90 nautical miles from Miami, Florida, this news prompted urgent meetings of defence and intelligence chiefs and then-POTUS John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In October 1962, an American spy plane spotted what looked like a missile site being built on the island of Cuba. Thus began a tense, 13-day stand-off, during which time many people genuinely believed the world was about to end. Wealthy Americans commissioned fallout shelters (some are still being used today to take refuge from hurricanes).

You can say this about the US defence apparatus, they keep detailed historical records. Whether it is the unexpurgated truth is another matter. As Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Nathan R Jessup in A Few Good Men famously says to prosecutor Lt Daniel Kaffee, who presses him for “the truth” – “You can’t handle the truth.”

In this instance, US intelligence agencies identified 15 SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites in Cuba.

The Soviets established a missile base on Cuba because they feared the US would invade Cuba, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group.

At the time, there was still a lot of angst about Cuba; members of the CIA-sponsored Brigade 2506 were still being held captive after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

President Kennedy needed to resolve this situation, quickly and peacefully. The crisis ended with the Kennedy-Khrushchev “agreement” of October 28, 1962. Less well-known was a dispute over Soviet IL-28 bombers based in Cuba. The US claimed they were “offensive weapons” under the October 28 agreement. Kennedy also made a (then) secret agreement to remove US missile sites from Turkey. These events ended the crisis but continued the “Cold War” (which ended in 1991) between Russia and the US.

So to 2017 and North Korea’s threat to target Washington or New York (or more likely Tokyo), with nuclear-tipped missiles.

You may have watched Monday’s Four Corners/BBC expose on the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. This documentary was, I thought, a little bit too informed by ex-CIA sources, US think-tanks and North Korea-watchers. It would be good to sit down in a bar with a regular DPRK citizen to see if they really are oppressed.

“Howzit goin’ Choi? Gettin’ enough to eat? Been threatened or beaten up lately?” Mate, do you get Outback Truckers on DPRK TV?”

If reports about poverty, famines, repression, reprisals, executions and endemic surveillance are true, you could hardly blame a DPRK citizen for having a drink or four. Communist regimes commonly keep alcohol prices down and relax access to it as a means of helping citizens cope with a bleak lifestyle.

North Koreans predominantly drink hard liquor; Soju, a colourless spirit akin to vodka, taken neat. Its alcoholic content ranges from 17% to 60%.

“North Koreans’ main hobby is probably drinking,” said Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who has led more than 100 trips to the DPRK for foreigners.

But the World Health Organisation ranks North Korea below 128 countries whose alcohol consumption per capita is vastly more than the DPRK’s modest 3.7 litres (94.9% of which is spirits). Australians and New Zealanders drink four times as much.

If you want some raw insights into life in North Korea, cartoonist Guy Delisle’s 2001 graphic novel of his time in North Korea is a good start. The first part of Pyongyang – a journey in North Korea begins with a customs official in the dimly-lit airport terminal suspicious of Delisle’s tatty copy of 1984. “What kind of book is this?” The official relaxes when Delisle tells him he has a work visa arranged with a North Korean animation studio.

Once in country, Delisle kept a diary, illustrated with his drawings of Pyongyang and things that happened as he was chaperoned around by minders. I borrowed it from the local library a few years back and found it blackly fascinating and a little subversive.

A Hollywood movie was planned based on Delisle’s book starring Steve Carell. But the movie was cancelled, reportedly because of the kerfuffle over Sony’s film, The Interview.

Love, love, love is all you need

Last weekend, we spent four glorious days and nights away from the constant stream of doomsday news. About 1,000 people from a broad spectrum of society congregated at a bush campground on the fringes of the D’Aguilar National Park. When people ask me what a folk festival is like, I tell them it’s not so much about the music (often heartfelt songs of equality, justice and humanitarianism), but the harmonious atmosphere.

Many performers took time out between songs at the Neurum Creek Music Festival to observe how sweet it was to have some respite from the constant barrage of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Comedians and folksingers Martin Pearson and John Thompson, reunited as Never the Twain, took a moment from manic wisecracks and parodies to touch the collective soul. The Fred Small song Scott and Jamie is a five-minute story about a gay couple who adopt two boys and are living the dream until social services intervene. The refrain – ‘Love is love, no matter who, no matter where’ rippled out across the festival venue. A hush fell; dogs dialled it down to rapid panting. Even the bar staff fell under the spell.

Four people sitting in front of me rose to their feet at the song’s end, to applaud the splendidly rendered version and the sentiment. It may be a forlorn hope to think that we can cure the world by singing songs of love and peace like ‘Imagine’, ‘Redemption Song,’ or ‘All you Need is Love’. But what else can a pacifist do?

She Whose Family Immigrated from Canada in 1964 thinks her Dad picked this place on the map to escape proximity to a looming nuclear war between two super powers. It didn’t happen then, but there have been scary moments since – September 11, 2001 in particular.

What now? Will we see a new surge of refugees from Japan and the US testing Australia’s world-famous, inclusive asylum seeker policies? Perhaps, as the latest issue of Popular Mechanics suggests, people will invest in bomb shelters instead. Those with wealth enough can spend tens of millions on ‘Doomsday Condos’, shelters big enough to cater for the extended family, friends, pets, the family lawyer…

Or you could travel to a village in Ontario, contribute ‘sweat equity’ and join other idealists maintaining the world’s biggest nuclear shelter, Ark 2.

Sigh. Détente would be easier, and cheaper. You know – détente as in ‘a relaxing of tensions between nations through negotiations and agreements’. Or rapprochement, even. But this would require Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to clasp hands across a table and sign an Accord.

We wish.

See more on this topic: ‘Surviving Armageddon’