15.000 European journalists lost their jobs

In the past few years, at least 14,790 European journalists have lost their jobs. Beth Costa, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Journalists, rings the alarm bell. “The biggest threat for press freedom in Europe is the economic crisis. How can there be freedom of the press in a country without journalists?”

  • Dieter Telemans Beth Costa. Dieter Telemans

Her second floor office at the Résidence Palace in Brussels has a direct view of the European Council’s offices. Part of a journalist’s task is to keep an eye on the heart and centre of power. After working as an editor for TV Globo’s international news, the biggest Brazilian media company, Beth Costa has now been working in Brussels for two years as the Secretary-General of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). She represents journalists from over 130 countries and has become the face of the guild worldwide.

The walls of her office are decorated with a world map, pictures of the famous Brazilian Magnum photographer Sebastião Salgado, and the framed motto of IFJ: “There can be no press freedom where journalists live in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear.” Next to Costa’s computer is a tiny wooden owl, a gift from a Paraguayan friend. Costa: “It’s the symbol of wisdom. The owl is always vigilant.”

Is World Press Freedom Day a happy holiday for you?

Costa: On the contrary, it is a rather sad day. Journalism is and will remain a dangerous occupation. Everywhere in the world, journalists are being murdered, threatened and incarcerated.

On World Press Freedom Day, I will be attending a meeting concerning the safety of journalists in Costa Rica, organised by Unesco. We want to stress the importance of safety issues and make journalists more aware of the possible risks. For media companies, it is a simple matter of investment: they can secure their reporters’ safety by procuring insurance, and by purchasing and providing materials such as tele-lenses so that journalists can report on dangerous situations from a distance. It is also necessary for them to keep close tabs on reporters abroad. Journalists should always have a contact person who can intervene when they haven’t reported back for a few hours.

Unesco is now focusing on journalists behind bars. How big of a problem is that?

Costa: Every day journalists are still being incarcerated. Because of the upcoming elections in Iran, that number will only increase in the coming months. At the moment there are 46 journalists detained in Turkey, some of whom have been imprisoned for over two years without formal charges. They don’t even know why they were arrested in the first place. In Eritrea, imprisoned journalists are not even allowed visits from their own family members.

What can the International Federation of Journalists do for them?

Costa: We can make sure they won’t be forgotten and we can lobby for them with their governments, by writing to them. By doing this, we were recently able to free a journalist who was held in a Kurdistan jail cell. We also fight impunity; in several countries it is relatively easy and cheap to have a journalist killed. Often the names of the culprits are known, but no action is taken. Together with the United Nations, we try to address those problems.

How?

Costa: The most efficient strategy is that of naming and shaming. When the United Nations General Assembly concerns itself with the safety of journalists and the UN Secretary-General names the countries where journalists work under threatening conditions, this has a real impact.

According to the NGO Presse Emblème Campagne, 28 journalists worldwide were killed in the first three months of this year. Is the situation getting worse?

Costa: Yes, and the death toll keeps rising. In 2012, 121 journalists have been killed, among them six women. And with 34 journalists killed, Syria has the largest death spike. The most alarming aspect is that most fatalities were not due to the Syrian conflict.

In Somalia (18), Mexico (10) and Pakistan (10), journalists have been murdered for uncovering corruption of politicians or Mafiosi. In Mexico, this is mostly related to organised crime, but also to the local government and police in the north of the country. A Mexican journalist told me that today, journalists are more often approached and threatened because of what they aren’t publishing. Not everyone is willing to write what governments or companies order them to.

In your home country, Brazil, six journalists were murdered last year.

Costa: All of them were investigative journalists, most of whom worked for the local media. They were active in the border area Brazil-Paraguay-Uruguay, where a lot of smuggling operations take place.

In countries such as Mexico, Brazil or Colombia, journalists are first threatened by email or phone so that they know they’re in danger.

To help journalists in acute emergency situations, you have a Safety Fund at your disposal. What exactly is that money being used for?

Costa: For emergencies. Last year, we were able to provide financial aid to journalists from 17 different countries. For example, we paid the airline ticket for a Colombian journalist who fled to Sweden. The Swedish Journalists Society helped him find safe accommodation. In Iran, we were able to support the families of incarcerated journalists for 6 months with 500 euros per month.

How much money is available for such emergencies?

Costa: At the moment, the Safety Fund consists of 500,000 euros, which comes from unions or donations. I can only make decisions ranging up to 2,000 euros. When a larger sum is requested, a council within the IFJ will discuss the application. When journalists are wounded and require medical attention, they can also come to us. And we also provide legal counsel.

Has Julian Assange (Wikileaks) ever asked for your help?

Costa: Never; he has never contacted us.

Would you help him?

Costa: I’m not sure. I don’t agree with the way he is being treated, but I don’t agree with how he behaves at times either, rising above the law.

How do you feel about Wikileaks?

Costa: There is some disagreement on the subject within the IFJ. Some of our member organisations – national unions for journalists – support Wikileaks, some don’t. We don’t have an official statement on it.

And your personal opinion?

Costa: To me, Wikileaks is not journalism. But it can be a source and a means for journalists to access and expose documents. Even though I do understand that governments and companies cannot share official or legal documents, I consider it a good thing that some tend to leak to the public.

Which media does the Secretary-General of the IFJ read?

Costa: Le Monde Diplomatique, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Aside from those, I follow many Brazilian blogs written by journalists, one of which was recently forced to shut down because TV Globo, my former employer, had sued him for defamation.

Do you consider bloggers to be journalists?

Costa: Not yet, with the exception of a few older, trustworthy and established journalists who were fired and consequently started their own blog. I still consider them to be journalists.

When someone is in trouble and reaches out to the IFJ, what definition do you use to ascertain whether or not that person qualifies as a journalist?

Costa: We base the recognition of the occupation on the national unions for journalists. How those unions determine that differs in each country.

In Belgium, you are only a journalist if you comply with the standards determined on December 30, 1963. Belgian journalists cannot engage in commercial activity.

Costa: The IFJ opposes laws that limit the access to the occupation. We are in favour of the principle of self-regulation, where the unions decide. At the moment, the IFJ is performing an investigation into the access to the occupation of journalist. In some countries, a degree of a specific journalism education is required. In African countries, there are no conditions whatsoever. There, if you get hired and you’re able to write, you’re a journalist. I disagree with the idea that anyone can call him-/herself a journalist. Journalists are professionals, much like engineers or doctors.

Complete the sentence: a good journalist…

Costa: …keeps both feet on the ground, but dares to dream about the future and wants to work towards an honest society. Journalists should serve society and fight for democracy, human rights and justice.

That’s one step beyond simply reporting. Is the Secretary-General of the IFJ pleading for committed and engaged journalism?

Costa: Why else are we still here? Why else have we chosen to become journalists? It can’t be just for personal reasons. There must be something that transcends that. To me, journalists aren’t warriors or heroes; it’s not about a militant kind of journalism. But we are confronted by daily reality, and we need to care for it too. A Brazilian theologist who was silenced by the Vatican, says you should not only care for yourself, your house and your family, but also for your street, your city, and the direction in which the world is going.

Shouldn’t a journalist always remain neutral?

Costa: There’s a colourful map of the world on my wall. If I were to ask you to describe what you see there, you’d perhaps name only the yellow and green countries. And I would name the red ones. We look at the same picture, but not in the same way. We each have our own vision, culture and value system. We can talk about the same topic in a very different way. My conclusion: there is no such thing as being neutral. What we can do, is aim to inform the public as best we can, offer all the available information and discuss all possible sides to a story. Journalists should always remain transparent. When we write an article, our name is attached to it and we must take responsibility for its content. We have to be able to prove what we write, and support it with sufficient sources.

What forms the biggest threat to press freedom today?

Costa: It depends on the region. In Europe, the financial crisis is perhaps the largest issue. In Spain, 4,000 journalists lost their jobs and their positions are not being filled. All over Europe, over the past few years, at least 14,790 European journalists have lost their jobs. How can you still talk about freedom of the press in a country without journalists? Who is reporting the news?

In Latin America, the media concentration is a big threat to press freedom. And in Africa, it is government meddling. The media is often controlled by the state, or is dependent on commercial advertising. In Asia, you’ll find a mix of the above.

Did the War on Terror impact the freedom of the press worldwide?

Costa: It still does. Certain topics remain undiscussed in both printed and non-printed press. I wonder whether it is due to a lack of interest or whether we aren’t allowed to tackle these subjects. How was Osama Bin Laden killed exactly? And Khaddafi? There is not just a lack of access to information, there is also the issue of censorship.

Even in the European Union?

Costa: In Europa, it is mostly self-censorship. When we meet with journalist unions from European countries, they stress that. Because of the economic crisis, journalists are scared of losing their jobs.

MO* was convicted for publishing a cartoon on the front page that depicted business man George Forrest wearing a leopard print hat. The accompanying article however was not rejected. What do you think about such a verdict?

Costa: It is unbelievable that a judge would approve the article, but not the cartoon. Cartoonists worldwide are under scrutiny. Images can of course be very powerful. I understand that it is unpleasant for the target, but cartoons are a part of journalism – unless of course, we are lying in them.

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