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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.

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

“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