Iraqi Turkmen guard a checkpoint in the northern town of Taza Khormato. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Islamic State stands for the deaths of journalists and of free speech

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists.

“Western journalists are the front line of the war against Islam. You are responsible for the negative image of Moslems around the world so you must die.”

That, roughly, is what the American journalist James Foley and other prisoners of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) were told by their captors, according to Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was held for months alongside Foley before being freed earlier this year-- presumably in exchange for a large ransom payment.

The barbaric nature of James Foley’s killing, and his killers’ inhumanity in posting the video of his death on the internet, caused exactly the widespread revulsion and fear that they were intended to achieve.

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists. A single horrific death made instant headlines around the world; and the “Keep Out” sign is now all too visible to other journalists and media.

The consequences could be dire: the ability of international media to report from such extreme hostile environments has shrunk. The age of access for us all as purveyors of foreign news may be coming to an end.

IS has spelled out the terms in which it seeks to frame a global clash of civilisations. At its core is a contest about freedom of speech and belief. By the nature of their work journalists are among those most exposed on the frontline of that struggle.

The general public is probably unaware that much of the globe, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, is already becoming a no go area for foreign independent journalists, as well as local ones, because of the heightened risks of abduction, violence or death.

Last year Isis (as Islamic State then called itself) began seizing westerners on sight, especially journalists. Its “business model” of kidnappings could involve months or years of silence during which the families might receive no information at all. The ordeal might or might not later lead to a ransom demand and negotiations – except for British and American captives, whose governments say they won’t negotiate with terrorists.

Only the most well-resourced media houses could mount the complex operation, involving specialist equipment, security teams and local guides, to send reporting teams into large parts of war-torn Syria. At least 66 journalists have been killed there since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The great majority were local journalists, and nearly half were freelancers, like Foley himself. Many are still missing. Islamic State now controls a large swathe of territory in Iraq too.

International reporting has in fact suffered a triple whammy. In many of today’s conflicts journalists no longer enjoy their time-honoured right of protection as neutrals. Instead they are increasingly targeted as enemies or for propaganda reasons.  And the frontlines of conflicts -- in Libya, Mali and Somalia as well as Syria and Iraq – are fluid and unclear. The only truly safe place is far away from the story.

Significantly, more than half of the journalists’ killings over the past decade have not taken place in recognised war zones at all, but in other lawless or unstable parts of the world, such as Mexico, Pakistan and Russia. CPJ reports that political groups including armed factions are thought to be behind 40 percent of all journalists’ murders worldwide. In nine cases out of ten the killers of journalists enjoy complete impunity. They are never caught.

Unlike the Fall of the Wall in Europe 25 years ago, which ushered in an age of openness for many formerly captive nations, the hopes kindled among millions in the Arab spring uprisings have been dashed. In Egypt, acclaimed TV correspondent Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues face years of imprisonment after a make-believe trial found them guilty of maliciously harming Egypt’s image abroad.

Islamic State must now be stopped through coherent work by governments and the international media to counter its message of violence and hate. It is critically important to bring the killers of James Foley to justice and to keep his flag of fearless and independent reporting alive.

William Horsley is international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), University of Sheffield

The Alternative
Show Hide image

"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.