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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

There can be no democracy without a free press. However, as with so many other issues geopolitics often distorts how we understand the urgent need to defend press freedom across the globe.

We are more likely to read accounts of crackdowns on journalists in countries  such as Russia, China and Zimbabwe than in  those allied to the US and the broader West, such as Saudi Arabia and Rwanda.

Earlier  in October the homes of more than 100 journalists were raided in India and two journalists who were arrested, both elderly, remain in police custody. India is a Western ally and this attack on the media has largely passed under the radar of the big Western media outlets. 

Many in the West ready to denounce authoritarian regimes in conflict with the West are silent when it comes to the West’s own dirty linen. Of course, there are exceptions to this tendency.

In May Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while she was covering the attack on the Jenin refugee camp by the Israeli Defence Force. Abu Akleh was an American citizen and a well-known figure. Her death received considerable attention. 

However, our principles mean nothing if they are not applied to all without fear or favour. Journalists must be protected in all countries, irrespective of their relations with the West and without regard for their fame. This includes all protagonists in the new war between Israel and Hamas.

Already a significant number of journalists have been killed while on the job in Gaza. There is not yet clarity on the exact death toll, but the numbers given range up to 15. On October 17 the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco) said it had confirmed the deaths of nine journalists in Gaza in what it decried as the “the deadliest week for journalists in any recent conflict”.

Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay issued a statement declaring: “Never in a recent conflict has the profession had to pay such a heavy price in such a short space of time.”

Reports from the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists indicate that the latest death was that of the head of the Women Journalists’ Committee at the Palestinian Media Assembly, Salam Mema. Her home was struck in northern Gaza and her husband and three young children were also killed.

Journalists always need our protection. But in times of war credible information is particularly hard to come by and “fake news” — what used to be called propaganda — is inevitably used by all sides as a weapon of war. 

The current war is no exception. The claim that Hamas fighters had beheaded 40 babies in Israel was repeated by major media organisations around the world, and by US President Joe Biden, before it became clear that there was no evidence supporting the claim.

Early reports out of Gaza that Israel had killed hundreds of civilians after targeting the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, reported uncritically by main news outlets, means that we are yet to have the truth verified. Confusion still reigns over who was actually responsible for the explosion.  

In the sort of febrile climate in which fake news can race around the world’s media and into the White House within hours, the necessity to have as many credible journalists on the ground as possible could hardly be more urgent. 

Journalists need the same sort of protection afforded organisations such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement in times of war.

Quite how to achieve this in a world divided by a new Cold War is not entirely clear. The UN, despite its many problems, is the only real multilateral global organisation, and Unesco has done well to raise the issue of the recent killings.

However, powerful countries on the UN Security Council, such as the US, Russia and China, do not welcome vigorous investigations into, and public denouncements of, their failings with regard to media freedom.

A genuinely global union of journalists, with a clear charter of principles and genuine independence from all states and donors that are aligned to states, as well as a nonaligned position with regard to the new Cold War, would be a significant step forward.

Of course, there are journalists’ organisations of various kinds, and some do good work, but none seems entirely fit for purpose given the challenges faced by the media around the world.

• Dr Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socioeconomic Research Institute and postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

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