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End the killings and targeting of journalists

22 December 2020

Kathryn Johnston

As members of the NUJ Belfast and district branch committee walked across the road from Writers’ Square in Belfast to stand with our banner on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral, we felt chilled to the bone. 

Yes, it was a raw and bitter December day.

But that wasn’t the whole story.

The last time the five of us had stood together there was as part of an NUJ guard of honour as the body of our 29 year old murdered friend, colleague and fellow NUJ member and trade unionist, Lyra McKee, was carried down those same steps after her funeral service.   

Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ's general secretary, was there. So was Seamus Dooley, the union's Irish secretary.

The British prime minister Theresa May and Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar joined us as we silently watched the coffin descend the steps. They stayed for a while to hear about threats against journalists living and working in Northern Ireland.

Threats against journalists are nothing new, as the NUJ's safety report graphically illustrated.

By far the highest number of threats reported are those against Northern Ireland journalists.

This year alone, they included Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threats against two journalists working for the Sunday World in Belfast and a loyalist paramilitary threat against a journalist working for the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life newspapers.

They also included threats against Sunday World journalist Patricia Devlin. In October she lodged a complaint to the North’s Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson over an alleged Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) failure to investigate a threat to rape her baby son.

And in September this year the NUJ accused the British and Irish governments of turning a blind eye to the failure of the PSNI to secure a conviction for the murder of Sunday World journalist and NUJ member Martin O’Hagan. He was shot by the Loyalist Volunteer Force in Lurgan, Co Armagh in September 2001.

Only last year, on 18 April, Lyra McKee, an award winning journalist, was murdered by the New IRA in Derry as she observed a riot. 

Last month NUJ members working in Northern Ireland took part in a private Zoom meeting to discuss recent threats against journalists, media workers and photographers with the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh MP. 

We detailed our experiences of being threatened, bullied, attacked, harassed and pressurised by both paramilitary organisations, criminal gangs and in some cases, from the state.

Special mention was made of online abuse, often directed against women journalists.

Last year, the security correspondent of the Irish News, Allison Morris, sued a Northern Ireland politician for 'seriously defamatory' posts he had made about her on his facebook page and blog four years ago.

Speaking outside the court, Allison said she hoped the case "sends out a very strong message that women in the media, or in any other public role, are not open season for online abuse of a misogynistic nature".

Meanwhile, the threats against Northern Ireland journalists continue.

We have to stand shoulder to shoulder, in public, to show solidarity with our colleagues who are threatened, and to underline that we will continue to do our jobs, without either fear or favour.

That was why we were at Writer’s Square. In Derry, members of the NUJ assembled at the Guildhall at the same time. Many more media workers across the UK and Ireland expressed their solidarity online, using the hashtag #standupforjournalism

Living and working in the media in Northern Ireland, we are all aware of the possibility of danger. Lyra McKee was no exception.

As early as June 2013, in a piece she wrote about the murder of a young online editor in Mexico, Jaime Guadalupe González Domínguez, Lyra spoke frankly of her own fears of death:

"I'm working on a story that requires me to ask questions about dangerous people. Every day, I wonder if they’re going to find out and do something about it".

Shortly before Lyra’s death, she had been preparing to speak at an Amnesty International screening in Belfast of the film "A Private War", about the death of the journalist Marie Colvin under bombardment in Syria.

Never would we have dreamed that she would not be there because she herself would be murdered. In a message to the protest, NUJ’s Irish secretary, Séamus Dooley, said:

"Journalists must publicly stand with those under threat. Intimidation and harassment are not acceptable. Threats are occurring nearly every week in Northern Ireland. Women journalists in particular are being targeted with vile and misogynist abuse.

"Threats should never be accepted as part of the job of a journalist or any other worker. Intimidation, harassment and online abuse should not be normalised.

"The NUJ has successfully backed our colleagues Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey who were wrongly arrested and their material seized by the PSNI in the No Stone Unturned documentary episode.

"We do not allow anyone to stop our members doing their job. That job is to shine a light in dark places. Having done so, it is our duty to exercise our right to freedom of expression in the public interest—to speak truth to power."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has recently published a report about the killing of journalists. Forty-two journalists and media workers have been killed while doing their jobs this year, according to the IFJ's annual tally. Mexico topped the list. Pakistan was next.

At our protest, the NUJ Belfast and district branch chair, Robin Wilson, ended by underlining our resolve and strength of purpose:

"The NUJ in Northern Ireland has already buried two members. I was a former colleague of Martin O’Hagan and part of the guard of honour at the funeral of Lyra McKee last year.

"We say: no more Martin O'Hagans; no more Lyra McKees."

Not in Mexico.

Not in Pakistan.

And not in Northern Ireland.

Kathryn Johnston is a member of the NUJ's Irish executive council (IEC). 

Tags: , northern ireland, health and safety, journalists safety, journalists killed, ifj