Freedom of expression: The operating system for story-telling

Walkley Foundation CEO Jacqui Park addressed the Power of Narrative conference in Boston, asking how we can talk about journalism in a way that helps the world understand the value of reporting and freedom of the press.

As journalists we talk a lot about telling stories, usually other people’s stories. It’s what we’re good at, and it’s what most of what we do is made up of.

Walkley Foundation CEO Jacqui Park asks how we can talk about journalism in a way that helps the world understand the value of reporting and freedom of the press.

Walkley Foundation CEO Jacqui Park asks how we can talk about journalism in a way that helps the world understand the value of reporting and freedom of the press.

But I wanted to talk today about telling our own stories. What is the narrative of journalism? And how do we shape that narrative to create the kind of landscape we need, so we can operate freely to tell the stories that matter? How do we get to a place where freedom of expression and freedom of the press are valued and respected?

For me, what is most significant about how we shape freedom of expression is the way in which journalists place themselves at the centre of the struggle for democracy and freedom of the press. And we do this most effectively when we do this collectively as a craft. I’m not free to express if the journalist sitting next to me, or across the road at another media organisation or working freelance or in new media, is not also free.

Freedom of the press is by its very definition a collective right.

So I want to explain how we tell that story of the craft and the rights of journalists by telling a few of our own stories.

Let’s start with the biggest story of our time: China.

You know the framework: a quarter of humanity, on track to be the largest economy in the world, ruthless communist dictatorship, et cetera.

But within China, ordinary journalists are grappling every day with how to fill – and, if possible, expand – the freedom of expression space. It’s hard because the media is one of really only three key institutions that the party refuses to give up control of, the other two being the army and the courts. Media in China are, almost by definition, organs of the Communist Party of China. Not the State, the Party.

Yet the party is constrained by the demand to deliver continued growth, by the need to control corruption and by very real environmental constraints. And we know journalists want to BE journalists. And the leadership really needs media reporting on, for example, corruption. So you can see how this opens up a space for journalists.

I don’t want to be overly optimistic about this. And the constraints under the Xi Jinping leadership are significantly greater than under the previous leadership. There is a definite tightening of control, particularly on the internet.

But journalists will take any opportunity they can get and it’s interesting to see how the State responds: not by wholesale banning and arrests, but by seeking to restrict and moderate the space for journalists.

So much effort to restrict knowledge about a civil tragedy in one of the best known spots in China. But it gives you a sense of this cat and mouse game of journalism in China.

We know about this because the International Federation of Journalists runs a press freedom monitoring program out of Hong Kong, which is great at documenting the manner in which the censorship and control organs of the PRC seek to restrict the space and how journalists push back against it.

Take Shanghai. Just before midnight last New Year’s eve, celebrations along one of China’s best known landmarks, the Bund on the shores of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, turned into a stampede. 36 people were killed and 49 injured. This tragedy resulted in a complex web of censorship controls:

  • The Shanghai Propaganda department prohibited all on-line news portals from using information from netizens who were at the scene; or any information from social media, including WeChat
  • All media were barred from passing on overseas and non-mainland (that is Hong Kong or Taiwan) media reports
  • No news articles were to relate the incident to anti-corruption efforts, territorial discrimination (that is the so-called hukou system), attacks on the party, the government or the socialist system

After the incident a press conference was closed to overseas and Hong Kong journalists.

So much effort to restrict knowledge about a civil tragedy in one of the best known spots in China. But it gives you a sense of this cat and mouse game of journalism in China.

Another example. The biggest political story in China of the last two years has been the arrest of former security boss Zhou Yongkang. It was the first arrest of a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven or nine member inner Cabinet that runs China, in almost 25 years.

Initially, all reporting in both traditional and online media was suppressed, even while the story was reported in international media. Finally, on July 29, the official news agency released a 54 word statement in English saying only that Zhou was under investigation, but not what for or who else was involved. A commentary by People’s Daily Online was blocked and all Weibo social micro-blog messages were deleted.

Or the biggest festering sore: the legacy of the events of 1989. Despite the claims that no-one remembers Tianamen or that it was a very minor disturbance, the party continues to put enormous effort into suppressing discussion. Last year was the 25th anniversary of the massacre.

On June 1, the Beijing government announced it would mobilise 100,000 informers and 850,000 volunteers to form a “safety network” to prevent anything happening. The day before the anniversary, the government closed subway exits in Tiananmen and also at Muxidi, the spot where the first shootings took place in 1989. Throughout the day, police patrolled the square demanding ID. Any journalist found was required to leave and any pictures were deleted from their smart phone.

On June 1, the Beijing government announced it would mobilise 100,000 informers and 850,000 volunteers to form a “safety network” to prevent anything happening.

Although I said that the PRC focusses on creating a climate of censorship – and employs a literal army to enforce censorship in both traditional media and in social media – it also regularly arrests journalists and human rights activists to “kill the chickens to scare the monkeys”.

The latest offence being used against freedom of expression is a new crime called “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”. Under this vague offence,  which is really just a dressed up version of the old catch-all “counter-revolutionary crimes”, individuals who annoy the government or individual officials are being targeted. Everyone from disabled rights activists to a group of five women demonstrating against sexual harassment.

Probably the most high profile of these cases is the human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was arrested after attending a 25th anniversary memorial last May. He has defended a large number of journalists and writers in freedom of expression cases, most famously the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. He’s been held since May under this vague offence, allegedly over comments made on his popular Weibo account.

Of all the arrests and crack-downs under President Xi, the arrest of Pu is probably the most significant. Like the arrest of Zhou Yongkang at the political level, it seeks to demonstrate that no-one – no matter how well known or popular – is invulnerable

If China is the biggest story of the 21st century, Indonesia is, to my mind, the biggest untold story. It’s the world’s fourth biggest country by population, largest Muslim country, incredibly diverse and on track to be a top ten economy.

After the 1965 coup, and the massacres that followed, Indonesia under Suharto practiced a sort of soft authoritarianism interspersed with occasional crack downs.

By the early nineties, the corruption and repression of this model became increasingly untenable for many Indonesians, including the rising generation of journalists.

In 1994, Tempo magazine,  Indonesia’s leading publication and sort of a cross between Time and The New Yorker, published a report about irregularities around the purchase of warships from the former East German navy. The government responded by cancelling the permit to publish for Tempo and two other magazines, De Tik and Editor.

Unlike previous crackdowns, the journalist community refused to take this lying down. They formed the first independent organisation of journalists, Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (or AJI, which is also Jakarta slang for little kid) in opposition to the state backed organisation. They campaigned for removal of licensing and for other forms of censorship.

The government pressured media organisations to sack their activists and, although some complied, most only shadow complied – moving activists from front-line journalism, suspending on full pay, sending on overseas missions etc. Two of the leading activists (Ahmed Tawfik and Eko Maryadi, along with their 19 year old office assistant) were arrested and jailed for up to two years for membership of an illegal organisation and for publishing the AJI magazine without a licence.

If China is the biggest story of the 21st century, Indonesia is, to my mind, the biggest untold story. It’s the world’s fourth biggest country by population, largest Muslim country, incredibly diverse and on track to be a top ten economy.

Journalists also pushed back in their journalism. Tempo relaunched itself online – remember, this was 1995 – because there were no requirements for an online licence. The company also took a small magazine it produced to publish crime and romance stories called Detektif dan Romantika, and rebranded it as D&R to continue with the sort of reporting that Tempo had been doing. Although they always ensured they kept at least one romance or detective story up the back to justify their licence.

This response non-plussed the government. They were comfortable with resisting frontal assaults, but lacked the will for the sort of guerrilla war on freedom of expression that the journalists were demanding they fight.

I will never forget how in late 1997 I called up our colleagues in AJI, as we did most years, to set up a journalists meeting in Jakarta. They replied in a very Javanese way: that they would love to but they were very sorry as they were busy bringing down the government just then. The meeting would have to be later in the year.

And sure enough, that’s what happened. A few months later, under pressure the government just faded away as Suharto stepped down.

His vice-president Habibie, who paradoxically had been the target of the 1994 Tempo story on the German warships, became president. Under pressure from the journalist community he set in place, or allowed to be set in place, the framework of a free and vibrant independent media that continues to this day.

In a matter of years, Indonesia has become one of the largest democracies, and probably the largest Muslim democracy, with combative and argumentative media that holds governments and corruption to account. Contested elections have become embedded in the politic of the country and just last year, the first post dictatorship figure, Joko Widodo was elected president. He’s been called the Indonesia Obama – so much so that his opponents in this Muslim country continue to spread the rumour that he’s a secret Christian.

Indonesia today is a real legacy of the work and campaigning of that generation of journalists who refused to stand down.

It was a similar story in Nepal. In February 2005, the monarchy and military leadership dismissed the disorganised and fractured political parties who were seen to be mishandling the Maoist rebellion in the western mountain region.

Indonesia today is a real legacy of the work and campaigning of that generation of journalists who refused to stand down.

Of course, it’s not just states that threaten journalists. Criminal gangs, terrorists and para-state actors all target journalists. We’ve all seen the figures. Over 100 journalists and media workers are killed every year. And the Asia-Pacific is almost always the most dangerous region. I think it was Stalin who said, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. So I want to tell some stories to give life to those statistics.

It’s just over five years since on the morning of November 23, 2009, a convoy of politicians, lawyers and journalists set off for the provincial capital of Manguindanao in the southern Philippines to accompany and report as an opposition candidate nominated for governor. They were stopped on the road by gunmen and marched to a site where they were shot and hacked to death. Most were buried in shallow graves that aerial footage showed had been prepared beforehand. Fifty-seven people – 32 of them journalists – were murdered that day in the single most bloody attack on news media recorded anywhere in the world.

In the five years, the Filipino journalist community continue to fight for justice, to have both the gunmen – and the local mafia dons who commanded them – brought to justice.

The Australian journalists union is also paying for the education of the 40-odd children left behind.

If journalists in the Philippines face the challenge of criminal gangs (and the criminalisation of politics), journalists in Pakistan face this and more: criminal gangs, rogue military, the Pakistan Taliban and other terrorist groups. As a result, since 9-11 about 100 journalists and media workers have been killed in Pakistan.

Let me just quickly tell two of their stories:

March 28 marked the anniversary of the attempted murder of Mohammed Mustafa. What’s shocking about his murder is its very ordinariness in the Pakistan context. Mohammed was the driver of TV personality Raza Rumi who had received death threats from the Taliban. His car was attacked driving home after his weekly show in Lahore and although Rumi himself survived, Mohammed Mustafa was killed and his bodyguard Anwar Hussain, was left paralysed. This attack was followed the next month by another attempted assassination – this time on Geo TV’s prominent journalist Hamid Mir. With this the space for free, independent and critical reporting shrunk further.

The only striking thing about the death of Mohammed Mustafa is that as I speak, this weekend is its anniversary. If we were meeting on another weekend, we’d have a different anniversary.

Despite their campaigning and refusal to forget their lost colleagues, virtually no-one has been convicted of any of the murders and rarely even are the attacks and threats investigated.

Let me tell you another story from Pakistan that really breaks my heart. On June 16, 2011, Shafiullah Khan, just 19 years old, had come to the offices of The News International in Peshawar for his second day as a journalist. When a car bomb went off in the square outside the paper, he did what any keen young journalist would do. He rushed outside to see what was happening… Just in time for the second bombing. He died from his burns in hospital later that night.

The journalists in Pakistan are lucky that they have a strong communal voice in the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. And they are often out on the streets. But despite their campaigning and refusal to forget their lost colleagues, virtually no-one has been convicted of any of the murders and rarely even are the attacks and threats investigated.

I want to talk a bit about my own country, Australia, but first there is another country that’s very important to me, Sri Lanka. Like a tear drop hanging off the end of India, there’s a real paradox in this country.  It’s been an uninterrupted democracy since 1948 – probably the only one on mainland Asia. Yet although democracy has been entrenched, it’s been marred by civil war and internal violence. There, the battle for freedom of the press has been difficult, nasty and often very personal.

After winning election in late 2005 with a promise to end the civil war against the Tamil separatists in the north, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Defence Secretary brother, Gotabaya, oversaw a serious crackdown on independent journalism. It began at a time when the words “white vans” came to be short hand for individuals being picked up and murdered, disappeared or severely beaten.

One of the big journalist campaigns at this time centred on Jaya Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist who was arrested and convicted of terrorism offences with a 20 year sentence. Let share with you the two key quotes from editorials that the state prosecutor used to jail Tissa for 20 years, to give you some idea of how lightly journalists are jailed:

First in a July 2006 editorial, under the headline, “Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future”, Tissa wrote: “It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.” This happened to be true.

In November that year in an article on the military offensive in Vaharai, in the east of the island, he wrote: “Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel, with the hope of driving out the people of Vaharai and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Vaharai is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment.”

These words were his alleged acts of terrorism!

The journalist community in Sri Lanka never abandoned Tissa, but it was global solidarity that made the difference, hard lobbying through the EU tariff system, teaming up with the international commission of jurists and culminating in the reference to his case by newly-elected President Obama’s statement on world press freedom day in 2009. Tissa was eventually pardoned and allowed to leave the country. I believe he now lives in the US.

Things didn’t get much better for journalists in the country, however.

“It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.”

In January 2009 things came to a violent head in a way that forced many journalists to flee the country. First, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the fiercely independent newspaper The Sunday Leader was murdered on a busy Colombo street on his way to work. His car was surrounded by four armed motorcyclists while his window was smashed in and he was shot in the head.  He had famously predicted his murder and penned an editorial that ran the next Sunday laying the blame for his death with the President.

In it he wrote:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. …media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. … Is it worth the risk? …. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

In the same month a major independent TV station was firebombed. Then a list of journalists circulated as a hitlist of the next to be killed.

I’ve got my own interest in this as I was personally detained and questioned over three days by the Sri Lankan CID while working with journalists and human rights activists in November 2013. I don’t want to overstate my own experience. I was “detained” in my hotel and I knew I had the strong support from my own government. I also knew that I was never the target – our Sri Lankan friends were. After three days I was allowed to leave the country. Still, it was another dark moment for press freedom in Sri Lanka.

The best news, however, is that democracy will always win out. On January 8 this year, the sixth anniversary of Lasantha’s murder, President Rajapaksa lost an election he had called two years early hoping to catch his opponents unprepared. Despite the vociferous support from state controlled or backed media, he was defeated by a coalition of human rights groups and political groupings. After briefly considering a military coup, he left office the next day. And I saw Lasantha’s wife, Sonali who lives here in the US, tweeted: This one’s for you Lasantha.

About 80 journalists who have been in exile under his rule are now able to return home.

Finally let’s consider Australia, where our story is perhaps more normal, more civilised.

Like all developed democracies that are part of the so-called “five eyes” (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, along with Australia) we’ve been rocked by the Snowden revelations and by the participation of our security services.

Of course, for journalists, whatever else we may think about this, we all recognise the threat this sort of mass data retention and mining posts for the confidentiality of our sources. Specifically in Australia the government has criminalised reporting on operations of the national security agency, adopted a wide definition to “terrorism” to include legitimate freedom of expression areas, and just this month has legislated mandatory metadata retention by all telecommunication agencies.

If you’re confused by metadata retention, so was the government, as David Speers’ interview with the Australian Attorney General showed ().  That interview won Australia’s leading journalism award, the Walkley, last year.

Australian journalists, both through their union and through this sort of reporting, have been pretty much alone in fighting anti-terrorist laws that target a free media. The laws have had bipartisan support and it’s only been the continued efforts by the journalists’ union that have seen some (albeit still unsatisfactory) moderations of the laws.

Last of all, I want to talk briefly about one matter where the US landscape is materially different from Australia, and much of the rest of the developed world. In my experience, most US journalists are horrified by the concept of state-owned media, even under the public broadcasting model that exists in much of the world.

Yet, in Australia it is an essential part of the freedom of expression operating system. That’s why it is continually attacked by government and has its funding threatened. To allay any concerns that public broadcasters waver under this pressure, I want to end by playing a short introduction to an interview with the Australian Treasurer.

To set the scene: the conservative government had just announced its austerity budget, six months after winning a landslide election in which it promised to do no such thing. The public broadcaster, the ABC, always carries first interview with the Treasurer immediately after he tables the Budget in the parliament. Let’s see how ABC journalist (and Gold Walkley winner) Sarah Ferguson handled this:

Jacqui Park is CEO of the Walkley Foundation

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Power Of Narrative conference at Boston University, March 27-29, 2015