Journalists and media are under fire literally all around the word every day and that’s part of the job in some cases. But it should not be the case in a modern democracy. Luca Contrino discussed the current state of safety for journalists following his attending of a preview screening of “Under the Wire”, a documentary focusing on the actions of war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Paul Conroy.
Organised by the United Nations’ Permanent Representation to the European Union at Galerie de la Reine in Brussels, the screening of Under the Wire left me speechless, and I must confess that it helped restore a sense of the intensity and brutality that has battered Syria for last seven years and counting, and to which we have rapidly become desensitised due to constant reporting and right-wing fear mongering.
However, within this narrative another key issue presented itself: journalism has come under unprecedented attack, be it physically, psychologically, or by other means, and this is not limited to war zones and dictatorships; in many countries considered democracies, journalists have been threatened or intimidated, often by elected officials, and some have lost their lives as a direct result of their work. As well as being a plea to return our attention to a brutal conflict (one of many) that has failed to seriously garner our attention and compassion, it is also a clear warning that a normalisation of violence against certain groups is coming a lot closer to home, and with it a desire by some to dictate certain narratives, and rewrite history, both recent and less so. It’s our duty not to ignore this, and to fight this creeping illiberalism that wraps itself in the cross and the flag in order to cling to power.
The documentary centres on the decision by American journalist Marie Colvin and her British colleague Paul Conroy to enter Syria illegally during the civil war in order to document the brutality of the Homs Offensive against ordinary Syrian civilians. Paul Conroy survived with serious injuries and contributed to the documentary, but Marie Colvin was killed during artillery strikes on Homs. What was interesting was to hear one other detail: the Syrian Arab Army had allegedly used the journalists’ Skype communications from inside a Syrian activists’ media centre to single out the area for bombardment, proceeding to carry out “bracketing” strikes, gradually bombing targets in an increasingly narrow range in order to eventually hit the building with the journalists inside with several rounds of heavy artillery fire. The intention was therefore clear: to silence the outside world’s only means to obtain information on what was happening in Homs at the time.
However, the documentary does not stop at indicting Assad. After all, even if the West has emphatically proven how little it cares about they Syrian people’s plight, it’s more or less impossible to deny the atrocities they are being subjected to. Rather, the documentary also puts the West’s governments in the dock for their total refusal to take any form of action. One must remember that Paul Conroy managed to get an appeal for help out on BBC News in 2012, and the French journalist Edith Bouvier, also in Homs at the time, did the same on French media channels. Despite all this, not a finger was lifted to provide help or the semblance of it, and Conroy himself declares “It became clear that the cavalry wasn’t going to come”. The journalists made it out thanks to the work of Wa’el, their fixer and a fellow journalist, who ultimately managed to escape Syria and resettle in the West. That might have been down to the extreme difficulty in getting the journalists out of Syria safely, but it could also be a worrying new attitude that is slowly taking shape, one of apathy for suffering so long as it is sufficiently removed from our daily realities (from the perspective of the public), and so long as it doesn’t realistically risk those in power being challenged or removed (from the leadership’s perspective).
Having said all this, one can be forgiven for making a cynical observation: these were the actions of a brutal totalitarian regime hell-bent on preserving power, no matter the death and destruction brought onto its own citizens. After all, we’re the civilised West, this doesn’t happen here. That might be true, but we can clearly observe another trend: a normalisation of threats and even physical violence against vulnerable or marginalised groups, and with it threats and violence against those seeking to hold power accountable, and to make matters worse, the encouragement for these actions often comes from those in power. Trump has constantly portrayed himself as the downtrodden victim of the media, yet has frequently incited his supporters to undertake aggressive behaviour against journalists, and most recently approved the release by the White House’s official social media accounts of a doctored video attempting to frame Jim Acosta for simply asking critical questions and refusing to let go of his microphone when a staffer attempted to rip it from him.
In Brazil, president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly reiterated his preference for authoritarian rule and desire to kill political rivals, which could easily be interpreted to include media organisations that do not back his highly reactionary and limited vision of social order and acceptability. Much like Trump, he also has fervent followers willing to mete out violence in the name of their idol and his vision of the country, but unlike Trump, Bolsonaro was deeply inculcated with authoritarian values, having spent his formative years under Brazil’s military dictatorship and serving for 17 years in the military that crushed dissent with an iron fist. Therefore, whereas Trump might say many things for reactions in the knowledge that it will delight his base and infuriate the opposition, many of Bolsonaro’s horrendous declarations come from deep-seated personal conviction. What’s worse is how these two men have emboldened the more extreme elements within Europe, and with Bolsonaro’s victory the desire to come completely “mask-off” with some the more fundamentalist aspects of their policies is stronger than ever. Already, political figures in Europe like Orban, Salvini, Di Maio and others routinely attack the press as “enemies of the people”, and while it appears to simply be cynical fear-mongering, it has long-lasting effects in terms of trust in public institutions and verifiable sources of information.
Nor is this victimless. Already, Jan Kuciak and Daphne Caruana-Galizia have lost their lives as a result of holding power accountable and uncovering uncomfortable links between the ruling class and illicit activities. Jamal Khasoggi’s horrendous murder at the hands of Saudi security forces at the country’s consulate in Istanbul got little more than finger-wagging from the supposedly “civilised” European and US administrations, and no serious consequences, giving a clear message: “if you have to do it, do it so no one notices, it makes us look bad for having you as an ally.” If we are not prepared to send a clear message abroad that such actions are unforgivable and entail clear consequences, what reason do we have to believe that such violence and silencing of critical voices will continue to be protected in the world’s supposed democracies. Worse still, these developments could add to the increasingly violent discourse that the far-right continues to apply to its declared “enemies”, among which all media which doesn’t unquestioningly fawn over them.
Under The Wire provided a raw and touching look at those who risked everything to bring the world the truth about the 21st Century’s most brutal and destructive conflict, and reminds of the stunning apathy that met their revelations outside the conflict zone. However, it is also giving us a clear warning: our apathy then is normalising violence and extremism much closer to home now, and the momentary outrage and shock continues to give way to apathy and disillusionment. In fact, the extremism and violence is increasingly embraced and legitimised as a form of action and a sign of “meaning business”. Considering that the far-right is leading the polls in several countries, it is legitimate to wonder what will happen to our rights in general, and on the quality of journalism in general. Something tells me a far-right government will not be a friend of journalism and a beacon of free speech as its supporters claim whenever they need legitimisation for the hatred they spew.
But now the ball is in your court, dear reader: what are you prepared to accept as a new normal in terms of the extremism, violence, and intolerance to criticism that the far-right promise in increasingly open and explicit terms. We can wait to find out, or we can take a stand and make it clear that the truth is still important to us, and our rights are more valuable than as bargaining chips in exchange for stability and comfort. I’m not backing down from the challenge, but I need you with me, so don’t be afraid and don’t hold back. The worst we can do is give up and allow ourselves to be seduced by the comfort of apathy, and the ease of hatred and intolerance. But that’s not what Europe is about, and I’ll do whatever I can to avert the dark tide facing us. Step up to the challenge with us, it’s the harder route but it will be worth it.
For more information and where to see the documentary Under the Wire, go to the dedicated website here.
You can also visit the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting which was established in memory of Marie and prepares the next generation of international correspondents at the Stony Brook School of Journalism.