Things finally sank in for me as I strolled past beautiful Sydney harbour on the weekend, on my way to yet another conference about the state of the news media.

I was on my way to a session called "My Crime is Journalism" at the fascinating Antidote Festival.

The Festival, organised by the Sydney Opera House with the assistance of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, sets itself the ambitious task each year of finding answers and solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the modern world.

There were discussions about climate change, housing, dark data and disability. And, of course, several sessions about the dire state of the news media.

I was heading for a session called "My Crime is Journalism", featuring an international line up of some of the most important voices in the campaign for a free and independent media.

There was Maria Ressa, the brave and outspoken Philippines journalist currently being legally represented by Amal Clooney as she battles arrest, repression and persecution by the government of President Duterte. There was Irina Borogan, the extraordinary Russian investigative journalist who has spent two decades covering (against all odds) crime, law enforcement and national security, and there was Lina Attalah, who runs an independent online Egyptian newspaper in a country where independent media is fast disappearing and where journalists themselves regularly disappear.

This, of course, is exactly what you would expect at such conferences - powerful speeches from the most brave, persecuted and marginalised journalists in some of the worst and most repressive regimes around the world. On such occasions, the dominant focus of the discussion in Western democracies with the benefit of a free press could be summed up in just four words:  "How can we help?"

But this time it was different. This time, the question was not "How can we help?" The focus, instead, was "How much worse are we making it?"

The fourth panellist at the conference was Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, and the session was chaired by Peter Greste, the brave Australian journalist who spent over a year in prison in Egypt simply for doing his job. He is now back in Australia leading the fight for media freedom here.

Not so long ago, the role in such discussions for voices from Australia and the US would be to offer support and comfort to beleaguered colleagues from around the world. There was still plenty of that on offer, of course, but the main focus was elsewhere.

Steve Coll spoke eloquently about the way the media in the US was under increasing attack simply for doing its job. Maria Ressa responded by pointing out that just days after President Trump referred to the mainstream US media as "fake news", President Duterte in the Philippines used the exact same term to refer to her news website, as part of a campaign to force it to shut down.

Peter Greste referred to the recent raids on media outlets in Australia and the way in which this was adding to an international climate where journalism was being criminalised.

Where once Western democracies proudly pointed the way towards a strong, independent and respected role for the media, they are now increasingly instrumental in creating a climate where repression and attacks are normalised.

If these things can happen in the US, the UK and Australia, how can they be condemned and tackled when they happen elsewhere in the world?

If you believe the wisdom that, in war, truth is the first casualty, then the war against journalism has started not by locking up the journalists, but by claiming that the truths they are revealing are really lies.

As Maria Ressa put it when she spoke during the session, if we can't agree on the facts, then we can't find the truth, we can't have debate, we can't have democracy.

I left the session daunted by the challenges facing us all, and with a renewed sense that the fight to defend journalists being killed and imprisoned around the world starts with a fight to defend the truth-tellers in all our communities against those who would lie, spin and manipulate to avoid unpleasant facts and fair criticism.

 

Alan Sunderland

Fourth Estate Journalism Advocate