Journalism under threat from “perfect storm of competing forces”, Sir Harry Summit hears

Posted on: May 11, 2023 by Claire Meadows

Investigative journalism remains under threat worldwide from a “perfect storm of competing forces”, it has been reported this week.

The comments, made by leading global journalists and media lawyers at the inaugural Sir Harry Evans Global Summit for Investigative Journalism in London, also warned that an increasing disregard in many countries for the Geneva Convention and the rights of journalists had meant that attacks on them – both physical and through the courts – had become “part of the modern playbook”.

Speaking at the journalism summit which brought together more than 200 global journalists and industry experts in honour of her late husband who died in 2020, Tina Brown, Journalist and Author said: “Serious journalism is under threat from a perfect storm of competing forces. Misinformation, corporate timidity, legal bullying and escalating authoritarian suppression. We have all seen how the erosion of fact-based inquiry is a threat to functioning society and more sinister still is the increasing disregard for the Geneva conventions in multiple dark corners of the world which makes the profession of journalism a mortal risk for those who pursue it.”

Her comments were backed by Allesandra Galloni, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters, who pointed to the fact that, worldwide, the highest number of journalists in thirty years remained imprisoned.

She said: “Journalists are putting their life, their health, their freedoms at risk everyday to inform the world. Just yesterday, Arman Soldin of the AFP lost his life covering the war in Ukraine. Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal has been in a Russian jail for more than forty days. 362 other journalists are currently in jail around the world and this is the highest level in thirty-years. The intensifying crackdown on press freedom around the world has created a new breed of exiles – journalists who dared report dangerous truths.”

The worldwide targeting of journalists and sources through varying legislative means irrespective of press freedom and the public interest was also criticised by international media lawyer Mark Stephens CBE who said they he “prays for libel cases” because they are easier to tackle than cases which attempt to “criminalise journalists”.

He said: “I pray for libel cases because they are so much easier and so much cheaper than when they go targeting journalists and targeting sources particularly when they start to attack and criminalise journalists and you get into much more high-stakes stuff.

“Increasingly people are not going after the journalists, they are going after the source. They are trying to find out who it is and stop it at source and put the source in jeopardy. One of the things that I think is a real issue is that sources are more chary because we have this wonderful shield law and this wonderful protection for sources but actually they are using different things to go round it.”

Stephens also pointed to the case of imprisoned British National Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong and the increasing use of varied legislation to attack and threaten journalists such as through tax and national security laws.

He said: “What they are now doing is they will criminalise people for not their journalism but they want to delegitimize the person so their message becomes delegitimized. Take Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong for example. He has been done for tax and Maria Ressa was done for tax. It’s about trying to get them to pull back and trying to intimidate them and creating a narrative around them…People need to understand that this asymmetric kind of warfare being brought against journalists needs an asymmetric response.”

The conference, held in partnership between Tina Brown Media, Reuters and Durham University also heard that, in the UK, worrying legislative proposals and a lack of accessibility and transparency in the courts and justice system continued to pose significant challenges for global investigative journalism.

Pia Sarma, Editorial Legal Director at Times Newspapers Limited said that investigative journalism had become harder, in part, since the Leveson Inquiry because some of the proposals for reforms in British law were “contradictory to press freedom and still are”.  

She said: “We have the National Security Bill going through parliament at the moment and, to me, it is a veil for embarrassment on the part of the government. Stories that are embarrassing could fall foul of that and journalists will be caught up in that.

“This country is not getting any better. There was an effort to not make this country the libel capital of the world but I think it still is. I think the problematic stuff doesn’t float up to the courts it is before you publish and it is the kerfuffles that act as a huge deterrent. If you add on top of that government action to suppress news, I don’t think we are in a good place.”

Selam Gebrekidan, an Investigative Reporter for The New York Times added that despite having reported in South Africa, some of the biggest challenges she had faced had come from accessibility in the UK justice system.

She said: “Last year my colleague and I were taking a closer look at the British justice system and all along the way from the courts; to the police departments; to basic data that should have been available from the Office of National Statistics; there were so many impediments in the way. Part of it was documents that we just took for granted would be available to the public and were in the public were not necessarily so. We had to fight judges to get documents that we should have been able to get and we had a lot of fights on Freedom of Information requests.”

The conference, which also heard from renowned Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can be watched, in full, here.