If the newspapers worked like trains

Alberto Spampinato

There are issues which we think we know well but from which we omit some particular and essential aspects until someone or something points them out. It happened to me many years ago in Sicily when my brother was killed. That experience, which I have described in a book which I hope to publish also in Spain, has inspired my entire life.

We were both very young. He was a journalist. He was 25 and was conducting an investigation into a mysterious murder. He was the first to publish several clamorous news stories, in particular one which the other journalists didn’t want to publish, even if it were true, because it damaged the interests of powerful individuals. He was killed and it was not possible to obtain the punishment which those responsible deserved.

This tragedy made me see in another light the profession of journalism which since then I myself have begun to exercise. Since then I reflect on the many risks and on the serious retaliations to which journalists are subject in carrying out their work, on the violence which obstructs both the search for the truth and the publication of news on individuals with power, influence or criminal strength. I discovered that these things happen more often than we can imagine and so all of us should be committed to prevent it.

From when I discovered this dramatic side to the journalism profession I have done everything possible to change the situation and I never miss the opportunity to invite others to discover this problem and to play their part in resolving it.

Obviously the solutions have to be found by those who make the law and by those who apply it. But I believe also that journalists and their organisations can do much more than just highlighting this problem. I believe that this task is not up to journalists only but also to all citizens, also to students, because the threats to journalists damage everybody, since they prevent the exercising of a right which is everybody’s, a right little known and rarely claimed but fundamental: the right to receive and to distribute information.

To begin my discussion I would like to remind you what is journalism information. Our society assigns to it the function of enabling the free circulation of ideas, of opinions and of information of public interest, that is that information which is necessary, as citizens, to participate in public life. We must realise that this function is important and irreplaceable and the freedom of information is not a claim but a right. We must underline that our right to receive and to freely distribute information covers all the information of public interest except that which could damage national security and that which has to remain secret to enable the magistrates and police forces to ascertain blame and responsibility. The freedom of information is, therefore, very broad, and is justified by the fact that this liberty is a pre-requisite of democracy. But we must also realise that in reality, this freedom faces numerous limitations several of which are arbitrary and inacceptable, contrary to the law and the constitution insofar as they prevent us from knowing important information.

It is true that each of us receives every day an enormous flow of information but if we look closely at the information universe which threatens to submerge us, there is much information which we can do without and instead important news is often absent; news which we have the right to know and which would be useful to know what is happening around us and to participate in public life.

I am referring to important and sensitive information on the misuse of power by those who exercise it, to the background of illegal activities, on corruption, of trafficking by mafias which involve public figures.

This should not happen on the basis of the right to information ratified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the European Convention of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Constitutional Documents in our countries. On the basis of these solemnly affirmed principles also information of public interest should be transmitted to citizens through the media. In adherence to these principles the media structure must be impartial. If we want to make a comparison, it should work like public transport, which transports passengers, whoever, where they want to go independently of what they think, of their intentions and of the political ideas which they hold. The impartiality of public transport is such a deeply rooted right that protests and intervention by the public authorities are immediate if someone arbitrarily prevents a passenger from freely using it.

Instead partiality and selectivity of information is amply tolerated. Every day newspapers and journalists choose the passengers to transport, they discard others for political or economic convenience or because it is or could be risky to do otherwise.

Every day important information is discarded because of menaces, intimidation, actual or potential violent retaliation or abuses which strike in particular at journalists and bloggers engaged in reporting facts of public interest. This happens every day but rarely is a protest made. Even though one would be duty-bound to dispute these threats and these retaliations which are already very frequent and widespread and are increasing at an alarming rate thanks also to the silence which surrounds them.

It is necessary to intervene because this is against the law and block out much information which we citizens have the right and the need to know. It is necessary to

Intervene because the practice of the selective collection of news creates serious difficulties for journalists who are working diligently.

This phenomenon does not have a precise name and also for this reason it is difficult to talk about it. Above all, therefore, we must give it a name. If we reflect on the historic concept of censorship it is not difficult to understand that we are dealing with a variation of it which the correct terms to use are “violent censorship” and “masked censorship”.

Historic censorship is that applied by law, by now only in authoritarian countries. It enables newspapers to be shut down which publish news on powerful individuals without specific permission and to punish journalists who do not respect the ban.

“Violent censorship” and “masked censorship” are the variations practised in democratic countries. In them the law formally forbids any   limitation to the freedom of information. And so it proceeds, disguising itself, resorting to violence and abuses and exploiting legislative loopholes, omissions and inadequate control.

The first to speak of “masked censorship” in 2012 was the Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks. The threats and the attacks against journalists, he insisted, are equivalent to censorship insofar as they “aim at shutting them up and convincing them not to proceed with their activity”. Citing a sentence of the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, Muiznieks noted that national governments are obliged to create a favourable environment which enables journalists without fear of violence and threats

to publish also information and opinions which could be regarded as uncomfortable for those with economic, cultural or political power. We are grateful to the Commissioner for Human Rights because with this clear definition he has shone a light on this phenomenon which everyone makes an effort to ignore. In 2015 the Commissioner has also proposed creating a pan-European network of national observers of violence against journalists to highlight this question. It’s the correct approach. Let’s see why.

Silence regarding the threats to journalists is a sine qua non condition for exercising violent or masked censorship. In fact, free and democratic countries are able to avoid challenging the manifestations of censorship and its sly variations only by denying its existence. Hence they obstinately deny that this censorship exists even when the factual evidence contradicts them. When finally they are compelled to admit its existence they begin to contest it because otherwise the international organisations could accuse them of the violation of one of the basic tenets of human rights, of a fundamental right which they formally and solemnly recognise and affirm.

The silence of the media has similar motivations. Several newspapers are impotent victims of violent or masked censorship, others are accomplices, others – the majority – seek to co-exist with the threats and they can do it only whilst denying being subjected to it. As soon as they admit it they have to challenged it openly to defend their credibility.

 

The silence of threatened journalists is also serious but it is justified by their fear, by the ostricisation/isolation by their own colleagues, by those who silently practise self-censorship and often say to the unfortunate: “who makes you do it?”

In Italy we have studies these processes. After forming hypotheses about them we have identified them. They are reliable results after careful observation in the field. Recently the Anti-Mafia Commission and Parliament have confirmed them.

We therefore know what is happening in Italy; we know that it is easy to abuse actions for defamation, to exclude an unwelcome journalist for a venue or a public event, to threaten a journalist who publishes unappreciated information, that it is easy to commit these and other abuses and to avoid sanction. We can affirm with absolute certainty that these practices are widespread, tolerated, accepted.

What happens in other democratic countries such as yours? We ask to ascertain it, by organising ourselves we have done in Italy, to reply to this question in every free, democratic European country; how is violent and masked censorship manifested? How many and which journalists experience menaces, threats, abuses? Which and how many menaces remain unpunished? Which and how much information is obstructed or obscured by menaces, abuses and various transgressions of the freedom of expression and of the press?

In Italy we have replied to these questions but nobody has told us what happens in other countries. Up until now nobody has felt the need to respond to these questions, to collect detailed objective data on these violations, as is done for the violations of other rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it is the time to do it in order to overcome negativity and to compel the authorities to react, to approve more adequate legislation, to plug loopholes which facilitate impunity for those who commit violence and abuses.

Our experience has demonstrated that, with limited means but much determination civil society can shake politicians and compel them to confront this problem.

“Oxygen for Information”, the voluntary organisation of which I have the honour to direct is an NGO established in 2008 by a group of journalists precisely to break the taboo surrounding the threats to journalists and news blacked out by violence.

When Oxygen for Information began to work nobody admitted that the threats were serious and numerous. Nobody wanted to speak about it, not even the journalists’ unions, far less the newspapers. Nobody took account of the threats. Nobody aided the threatened journalists to resist. Oxygen for Information filled this gap and shone a spotlight on the phenomenon. It did it by establishing the facts through the method of a journalism investigation and publishing them on the web with daily updates.

What we have ascertained with this work is impressive and exceeded our own expectations. Yet it is all true. There are thousands of acts of violence and abuses against journalists, they are frequent, they have a constant and capillary diffusion all over the country and in large measure they succeed in producing the censorship effect wanted by violent individuals since they are not challenged as they should be and could be.

The work of “Oxygen for Information” has changed the perception of the phenomenon, has put an end to denial, and has compelled politicians and Parliament to intervene. Today, in Italy, everybody talks about threatened journalists and of the bogus lawsuits. Everybody refers to the data compiled by Oxygen; they cite it as objective and irrefutable data with which they must work. This work of Oxygen for Information has shaken apathy and general indifference. It has not resolved the problem but it has given courage and hope to many journalists. And it is undoubtedly due to our work that finally the Government and Parliament are committed to adopt several urgent remedial measures.

This development has been possible because a group of journalists and lawyers created an ad hoc Observatory. Developed an ad hoc recording method and applied it using the free human capital of professional volunteers to compile this data.

We invite everybody to get to know this Italian experience and to see if a comparable investigation can be tried out in their own country, to check if the same things happen, as we believe is probable, and to encourage the intervention of politicians and the institutions.

In synthesis, “Ossigeno per l’Informazione” has conducted a journalism investigation in the field. It has documented a huge number of serious violations of the freedom of the press, carried out in Italy by threats, menaces and abuses of the legal processes. It has demonstrated that in Italy in ten years 2900 journalists (whose names Ossigeno has published) have been obstructed in their work, with clear violations of freedom of expression and of the media, with violent acts and dubious legal accusations whilst they were engaged in reporting news. With few exceptions, these abuses have been neither reported by newspapers nor punished.

These 2900 names are the tip of the iceberg, the small visible part of the phenomenon which, according to Ossigeno is at least ten times more extensive and thus affects over half of practising Italian journalists.

The most serious violations documented by us are the death threats to tens of journalists several of which live with police protection. Many other journalists are exposed to serious risks but have no protection whatsoever. The violations include intimidation, warnings, physical attacks, discrimination, the revelation of professional secrecy, abuses of the laws on defamation, false and unfounded claims for damages. Legal abuses form 40 per cent of the total.

“Ossigeno for Information” has also formulated a series of proposals to reduce drastically the number and the impact of these threats. Several, in our opinion are valid also in other countries.

In conclusion I would like to say that the silence of the media weighs heavily on phenomenon but it is not a valid alibi for not acting. We must listen to our conscience. We must look at the reality and believe what we see with our own eyes. We shouldn’t shield ourselves with clichés and reassuring stereotypes. We must have the courage to open our eyes, learn from the good practices achieved in other countries and roll up our sleeves. We have to do our part as journalists and citizens without hiding behind the thoughts of others, behind clichés which don’t explain what is happening around us.

We Europeans, we Westerners, have the great responsibility to make real and practised fundamental human rights. We must denounce the serious violations of press freedom which happen in authoritarian countries, we must lend our voice to those who cannot speak in those countries. But if we want to be since and credible exporters of the great values of equality, liberty and democracy we must state also what ugly events happen at home and commit ourselves to ensuring it no longer happens.

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