Rise in Militia Groups Threatens Press Freedom

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As militias around the world see a rise in power and influence, journalist safety has become a growing concern. In all corners of the globe, journalists must navigate armed groups, organized criminal gangs and terrorist organizations in order to report the truth.

By Colette Davidson

Editha Caduaya is used to checkpoints. In order to cross into Mindanao to report a story, she must give military guards her identity, her address and show the contents of her bag.

Mindanao has been under martial law since May 2017 following the Marawi Siege by the Maute terrorist group. As a result, journalists like Caduaya are stuck playing by the military’s rules.

“You need to go through their procedures, to talk to the designated person and tell them what they want to hear,” says Caduaya. “If you don’t, your story will have no names or facts.”

The Philippines is just one of dozens of countries dealing with a rise in militias. From armed groups, organized crime and terrorist organizations, journalist safety and press freedom is becoming increasingly harder. But journalists around the world are finding ways to deal with militia groups in an effort to get their stories into the hands of readers.

Militias operate anywhere where there is civil war, but the term can take many forms. In Mexico, Honduras and other parts of Latin America, drug trafficking has meant an increase in organized crime. Colombia is still working to find peace with FARC rebels. And terrorist group ISIS has wreaked havoc on Iraq and Syria since it proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate in 2014.

In Africa, journalists in Somalia and nearby Kenya have struggled to report the truth as Al-Shabab continues to exert power over the region. Kenya has also recently dealt with an increase in homegrown militias – many of whom operate unidentified. And in countries like the Philippines and the Indonesian territory of West Papua, government repression or military rule has made being a journalist extremely difficult.

“I think it’s more dangerous for both local and international journalists today,” says Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s Deputy Executive Director. Mahoney says the kidnapping and subsequent beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002 was a turning point in how militias began using journalists as political bargaining chips.

“Groups don’t need journalists to get their point across,” he says. “Now, journalists are the target and the news in and of itself.”

The risks for journalists include harassment, assault, kidnapping and murder. Oftentimes, equipment like computers, hard drives, phones and other documents are confiscated by armed groups, the military or repressive governments in order to manipulate and intimidate journalists. For freelancers and correspondents working far from home, the risks only increase.

“The risk is heightened by the fact that, most of the time, these [conflict] zones are covered by correspondents with little or no financial, moral, or security support from their employers, who could be hundreds of kilometres away,” says Bernard Mwinzi, a journalist at Kenya’s Nation Media Group.

Mwinzi says that another, often ignored, risk to journalists is digital safety.

“In an increasingly digital working environment, journalists expose themselves a lot to cyber-attacks, which have been found to be psychologically distressing and, hence, a form of imposed self-censorship,” says Mwinzi. “The risk of trolling and other forms of cyber-bulling often keeps journalists off ‘dangerous’ stories.”

In attempting to work within the confines of militia groups’ rules, many journalists around the world censor what they will or will not publish, for fear of reprisal from armed groups. Alia Ibrahim knows this phenomenon all too well. A Beirut-based journalist, Ibrahim was the Senior Correspondent at Al-Arabiya News Channel until 2016, where she reported in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Turkey and Syria.

“A major problem is access because anyone with a gun can obstruct a journalist from going into an area,” says Ibrahim. “[The military] will say it’s for our safety or to protect government secrets but the bottom line is, journalists are not welcome.”

As a television journalist doing live broadcasts, Ibrahim says she was always aware that she was not working in a “free speech culture” and that her and her colleagues’ security could be heavily compromised if she reported certain information.

“Self-censorship is just something you learn as a journalist in an Arab-speaking country,” says Ibrahim. “You learn how to pass the message along with the least damage possible.”

She says that despite hopes to the contrary, journalist safety is getting worse in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab revolutions. That is the sentiment in Mexico, where the number of journalist deaths hasn’t abated in over a decade. In 2017, six journalists were killed in Mexico, according to CPJ, and already one has been killed in 2018. The continued increase in journalist deaths worldwide means that wider measures must be implemented.

“In Mexico in particular, there needs to be stronger mechanisms in place to protect journalists and to combat impunity,” says CPJ’s Mahoney. “Also, raising awareness among journalists about what they can do to protect themselves.”

Still, Mahoney says protecting journalists from armed groups is not only up to them.

“You can’t expect journalists to bear the brunt of it,” he says. “You need rule of law and a fully-functioning state that can protect the press.”

But sometimes, this just isn’t possible. In this case, editors need to work with journalists to set a safety protocol and a communications plan to follow. In Kenya, reporting amongst armed militia is still a relatively new phenomenon, and many media houses are not equipped to deal with the challenges.

The Kenya Media Freedom Committee recently approached several newsrooms around the country to find candidates who would be coached by security consultants on how to protect themselves, use fixers, identify danger signs in conflict zones and gauge the magnitude of risk as well as digital safety procedures.

“Through this approach, which we refer to as the ‘training of trainers,’ we hope to get buy-in from various media houses as conversations around the subject continue in their newsrooms countrywide,” says Bernard Mwinzi. “After that, we plan to draw a harmonized policy document that details standard operating procedures when reporting armed conflict across the Kenyan media landscape.”

For journalists who don’t have access to such trainings, they’re left to their own devices, often relying on editorial direction or instinct to navigate whether a situation is too dangerous to report on. Editha Caduaya says that for now, she will continue to follow the rules of the military operating in Mindanao in order to avoid arrest – or death – and get her story.

“I hope we can elevate the understanding in Mindanao that we journalists just write, we’re not troublemakers,” says Caduaya. “I hope one day journalists will be safe and free to interview people and simply do their jobs.”-By Colette Davidson/WAN-IFRA

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