It was after 10pm when I started scrolling through The New York Times on my phone, catching up on the day’s news. I had previously made a rule not to read traumatic messages after 8pm, but one image caught my attention. A familiar face.
The headline read: “Fox News crew in Ukraine engaged in fighting, two journalists died”. I scrolled further down but found no clues.
Then a burning sensation crept up my chest. I was switching emails looking for a briefing I had written ahead of a Channel 4 coverage trip to the Middle East in 2015. And there it was. Pierre Zakrzewski’s name. The friendly face in the picture.
This veteran Irish cameraman, who had dedicated his life to documenting the truth, had given me sound safety advice seven years ago that would protect me as a journalist in Iran seven years ago. With tears streaming down my face, I typed a note to a former colleague, Pierre’s wife, Michelle.
Pierre is now one of at least seven journalists killed during an operation in Ukraine. And he is one of 15 killed worldwide this year; Journalists murdered just for doing their job.
The idea that the press is a target in conflict zones is not new. During the conflict in Syria, we have seen an increased wave of attacks on journalists in recent years Sunday times Journalist Marie Colvin was targeted by the Assad regime while reporting from Homs and US reporter James Foley was publicly beheaded by Isis.
John Cantlie, who was abducted by Isis with James in 2012, had spoken to me for a Syrian security briefing documentary I wrote prior to his disappearance. His fate is still unknown.
Attacks on the press are by no means limited to conflict zones. Donald Trump’s “enemy of the American people” attacks set a new and unprecedented baseline – the press was now fair game.
The US, where I live, is ranked 44th on the World Press Freedom Index. In comparison, Ireland ranks 12th.
My experience as a journalist and documentary filmmaker in Ireland has been somewhat mixed. I reported back in 2017 before the Eighth Amendment referendum on the country’s abortion laws.
Driving across London one morning to meet my Irish-born director, Kate Hardie-Buckley, while we were still in the research and development stages of the film, I received an email from a girl I was dating went to school.
She held anti-life views and opposed the repeal of the amendment. While the email appeared friendly, it warned me that politicians had been verbally attacked in the abortion debate, even having “things” sent home.
At the end of her email, she suggested I “take care of myself.” And she was right. One of our interviewees later told us unofficially that an individual had previously received a bullet in the mail for their views in this debate.
We have not been able to verify this story, but there were moments during our reporting that made us deeply uncomfortable.
There was a group of men on one side of the debate that we encountered regularly while we were making our documentary, and they insisted on filming me and my director up close with their cellphones and small camcorders while we tried to capture ours to do work in public space. It was strange. And sometimes intimidating.
While not a practicing reporter these days, I am a press freedom advocate at the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) where I serve as director for Amal and George Clooney.
There is now the highest number of journalists in prison on record and at CFJ we believe it is more important than ever to stand up for the journalists who end up behind bars.
To do this, however, we need to know what happens in courtrooms around the world where convictions are passed against the press.
Through our TrialWatch initiative, we have monitored over 40 court cases threatening press freedom and reported on crackdowns on journalists in Belarus, India, Morocco and Hong Kong.
Our trial monitoring also allows us to identify the laws that are being weaponized against the press, so we can eventually push for their reform.
For example, in Belarus, TrialWatch observed the trial of two young journalists convicted of covering live a protest in 2020. Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova sat in a cage during their trial in Minsk and were sentenced to two years in prison after a four-day trial.
Our TrialWatch surveillance showed that her conviction violated her presumption of innocence and her right to free speech.
Her case was a clear signal to other journalists – reporting dissenting opinions would not be tolerated in Belarus. We at CFJ have since filed legal submissions in support of the journalists’ complaint.
Interestingly, we are now seeing similar tactics being used against protesters in Belarus being used in Russia, where there is a crackdown on protesters opposing the invasion of Ukraine. We plan to monitor the court cases against journalists there as well.
If independent media is to survive around the world, journalism should not be viewed as a crime, and journalists should be allowed to go about their work without fear or favor. They should be protected.
As we mark another World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd, there are many reasons for concern, but also reasons for hope.
I believe it will be a mixture of law and journalism that will eventually help hold journalists’ persecutors accountable.
Shaunagh Connaire is Director of Communications and Media at the Clooney Foundation for Justice
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/it-is-vital-to-protect-journalists-if-independent-media-is-to-survive-41581098.html Protecting journalists is vital if independent media is to survive