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

“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

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot