World Press Freedom Day reminds the industry the risks of doing journalism

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


World Press Freedom Day on May 3 offers a chance to assess the importance of safety in the field and in the newsroom, as well as the many threats journalists and their publications face — whether it is online harassment, dangers in field reporting, or government interference in publishing.

World Press Freedom Day is a UNESCO initiative with a week of activities in New York this week — the 30th anniversary of the project to promote freedom of expression and the role of the press as a guarantor of free speech but also other rights by exposing wrongdoing and injustice.

It is a good moment to reflect on the case of Wall Street Journal Russia correspondent Evan Gershkovich, jailed by Russian authorities last month. In what seems more like a hostage-taking, Russia holds Gershkovich as a pawn in a much larger conflict with the United States, much as it used basketballer Brittney Griner before it was able to secure a swap in her case with noted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia in March.
Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia in March.

The Gershkovich case highlights the risks journalists take — and that their newsrooms need to prepare for and understand the consequences of — when reporting from risky places and in the case of assigned correspondents how to stay in the most difficult of circumstances.

“Evan went to report in Russia to shed light on the darkness,” President Joe Biden told a White House Correspondents’ Association freedom of the press event in Washington, D.C., attended by Gershkovich’s parents and the mother of Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist who disappeared while working in Syria more than a decade ago.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Biden said. “Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with every other American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”

Gershkovich, who must have assumed his movements were tracked as soon as he left his Moscow apartment, was picked up while trying to report in the Urals industrial city of Yekaterinburg, apparently seeking to follow leads related to the Wagner mercenary group.

Caring for reporters in difficult situations is a critical business question for publishers. It is a subject I’ve dealt with at Reuters News Agency, MSN, The Times and Sunday Times, and CNN. 

Responsibility for people in the field goes beyond the normal duty of care to staff and their physical and mental health (which is not to diminish that commitment), because you know the business is deliberately sending them to difficult or dangerous places or even because you might be buying content from or contracting with freelancers to cover difficult places.

World Press Freedom Day is about more than the physical risk to journalists.
World Press Freedom Day is about more than the physical risk to journalists.

It is also the case that reporters, businesses, and your offices can face threats in more benign environments than war zones. World Press Freedom Day is not all about the physical risks. It’s a time to think about the whole picture of what it takes some people to report, to publish, deliver their products, and do so in not just a sustainable but a survivable way.

INMA works with members in places where the freedom of the press is limited, curtailed, or made difficult by domestic political factors. The Newsroom Initiative focuses on putting journalism at the centre of the publishing business and helping newsroom leaders influence strategy and direct teams to create compelling products that support the business.

Mental health is also a serious issue for newsroom leaders along with endemic online abuse many reporters, especially women, face. A recent UNESCO-commissioned report showed that apart from the impact on individual reporters, the attacks have a chilling effect on publications, expose their dependence on Big Tech platforms, and put their people and businesses at risk.

“I’ve always known online violence leads to real-world violence,” Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Philippines news site Rappler, said in the report that notes the 2017 assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017.

“There are shocking similarities between Maria and Daphne’s cases, including a long period of time in which they both experienced a combination of attacks, from multiple different sources, online and offline — state-facilitated and state-fuelled,” lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who represents Ressa and the Caruana Galizia family, said in the report.

If you need help thinking about the risks your journalists may face outside and inside the office, here are some resources worth looking:

Let me know at if you’d like the INMA Newsroom Initiative to convene a Webinar on newsroom safety and the business implications.

About Peter Bale

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