alan sunderland addresses glodal media freedom conference


By Alan Sunderland, Fourth Estate Journalism Advocate


They couldn't have picked a better venue.

When the British and Canadian Governments decided this week to bring 1500 people together from around the world to discuss ways to defend media freedom, they assembled them at the Printworks in London.

Best known these days as a nightclub, the building was for a hundred years one of the biggest newsaper printing presses in the world, producing the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and the Metro. The cavernous, industrial interior served as a stark reminder of how our industry has changed, and how many jobs have been lost.

I attended the conference as a guest of the Public Media Alliance and I spoke about the value of supporting strong public interest journalism.

But wearing my hat as the Journalism Advocate for the Fourth Estate, it was also very useful to range across a number of sessions over the two days and see what current thinking is on the threats to journalism and what needs to be done to help.

The first thing to say is that journalists approach conferences like these with a mixture of cynicism and hope. While it is important to welcome the promises by Governments to pledge their support for a free press and in particular the commitment of funding for better legal protections and fighting funds for journalists who are attacked, imprisoned or even murdered for doing their job, it is also important to be wary about how many of these promises will be turned into concrete outcomes and real actions.

There is now an official global pledge that governments around the world are being asked to sign up to - many at the conference already have. 

I heard powerful and moving speeches in London from colleagues like Maria Ressa, Peter Greste and Mimi Mefo who have been threatened and imprisoned for their journalism and it is wonderful to see real funding and real actions to better support journalists under attack.

But at the same time, I detected a less-than-enthusiastic approach from Governments towards tackling the smaller and less obvious ways in which journalists are being pressured and attacked on a daily basis.

It was interesting to note, for example,  that even as the conference was underway, the British Government was launching a witchhunt to discover who had leaked embarrassing but entirely accurate information about their own Ambassador's view of the US President, the Australian Government was continuing to pursue possible criminal charges against journalists for producing strong, public interest journalism about alleged atrocities carried out by Australian troops in Afghanistan, and other governments around the world continue to pressure, attack and reduce funding to public broadcasters and other sources of strong, independent journalism.

There are many ways to compromise and undermine media freedom, and killing or imprisoning reporters, while the most appalling, is not the only method.

I, for one, would love to see Governments who are prepared to step up and condemn physical attacks on journalists in other countries to also look closer to home and pledge to do more to allow journalists and, importantly, their sources, to operate in the public interest without fear of being pursued and charged on spurious and overbearing national security grounds. There is no threat to national security in a healthy democracy when corruption, over-reach and controversial policy decisions are aired for public discussion.

There was another 'elephant in the room' at this conference which needs to be acknowledged, and that was the astonishing absence of the United States. Although the conference was organised by the UK and Canada, participants and delegates came from all corners of the globe. I listened to voices from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Middle East and South America as they frankly discussed the media challenges and opportunities in their own parts of the world. Yet almost without exception, none of the official speakers and delegates at any of the formal sessions came from the US, the US Government did not appear to be officially represented on the program, and none of the major US media organisations were involved.

This didn't stop the US from being discussed, of course, and it is not hard to guess what message came up on a regular basis. The words and actions of President Trump were often referred to as a clear and present danger to media freedom, and an example of how dangerous statements that depict the media as the enemy can embolden attacks on journalists around the world. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how it has come to pass that the world's leading democracy is not only a non-starter at a conference on global media freedom, but serves as a salutory lesson on what not to do.

Next year's Global Media Freedom Conference will be in Canada, and it will be interesting to see whether the funding, the promises and the fine words at this year's inaugural conference bear fruit. And whether the US is invited along.


Alan Sunderland

Fourth Estate Journalism Advocate