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World Press Freedom Day, 2019. We will not be silenced

4 May 2019

“We will not be silenced,” said Kasra Naji.

The senior correspondent with the World Service’s BBC Persian was speaking about the campaign of harassment and intimidation against him, his colleagues and their families by the Iranian government.

The service – on TV, radio and online – provides news and entertainment to Persian speakers around the globe. The TV channel has 12m regular viewers hungry for the impartiality, objectivity and reliability the service provides.

To provide this service, Kasra and his colleagues have paid dearly.

Kasra was guest of an NUJ event commemorating World Press Freedom Day in London. The evening had been dedicated to Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist from Northern Ireland, shot dead by the New IRA while observing disturbances on the streets of Creggan, Derry, on the eve of Good Friday.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Attending her funeral was by far the most surreal, upsetting and inspiring duty I’ve carried out as a general secretary of the NUJ.”  She said how emotional it had been seeing the grief and love the family and partner, Sara, for Lyra. For the NUJ family, the loss had been felt throughout the union. Shocked and shaken, the journalist community responded by organising vigils and fundraisers under the banner of #WeStandWithLyra.

Michelle said:

“Here was a journalist who represented the best of Northern Ireland with a future ahead that reflected her optimism, her confidence, her ambition and her strong sense of social justice and commitment to equality. If you haven’t already, seek out her writing and investigations on suicide and mental health, on social exclusion and sexual inequality and see for yourself what a fine journalist she was.”

The NUJ will ensure that Lyra’s vision of journalism will not be silenced. Michelle said she was consulting with Sara and the family about how to create a legacy which will shout loudly about her imaginative, insightful and brave journalism.

Among the many messages of condolences the NUJ received was one from the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PSJ). Michelle had just returned from an intense five days in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jenin, Bethlehem and Ramallah as part of a delegation of women trade unionists. She also spent time with the NUJ’s sister union the PSJ to celebrate May Day with them.

She said: “It was sobering to meet journalists and listen to the many ways they are routinely targeted and their reporting stymied – the restrictions on movement, seizure and destruction of equipment, the use of detention and sometimes deadly force.” Israel refuses to acknowledge the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) press card, she explained. “Journalists are targeted with rubber-coated metal bullets, many types of tear gas and soldiers deliberately aim at shoulders and wrists to make them drop their cameras.”

Last year 95 journalists lost their lives during the course of their work, according to an IFJ tally.  Mariela Kohon, the TUC’s senior international officer and former director of Justice for Colombia, who chaired the panel, said threats to journalists were coming from all sides: they had been named “enemy of the people” and attacked by the far-right. "The TUC stands in solidarity,” she said. Proceeds from the event, she said, would be donated to the IFJ’s safety fund, which offers assistance to journalists and their families facing violence, persecution and threat or needing medical treatment.

Mariela introduceda video message from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who worked closely with the union as a former chair and secretary of the NUJ's cross-party Parliamentary Group, meeting the Egyptian ambassador to express concerns about the brutal attacks on journalists and highlighting the plight of international colleagues in Parliament.  He said: “Today, let’s remember the importance of a free press and all those journalists who go the extra mile to find out the truth."

Kasra Naji showed a new video produced by the BBC highlighting he intimidation suffered by colleagues in the Persian Service:

  • A senior producer’s sister was thrown into prison and she was told she had to spy on BBC Persian colleagues to secure her release; she refused and they kept her sister in jail for 17 days.
  • A presenter whose family was called in for questioning, including her father at the height of his chemotherapy treatment.
  • The journalist – one of several – who has had to have police protection after his family was told he could be killed in a car accident in London if he carried on working.
  • A presenter who was sent anonymous emails demanding she stop working for the BBC. They said they knew where her 10-year-old son went to school.

Kasra thanked the NUJ and the BBC for their support. “We will not be silenced. We will continue to provide the highest standard of journalism in the Persian language,” he said.

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                       Ayşe Düzkan

Former NUJ president and NEC member Tim Dawson spoke about his friend Ayşe Düzkan, who is serving a sentence on trumped-up charges in an Istanbul jail. Her newspaper Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) is pro-Kurdish rights and was always going to be a target of president Erdogan, notorious for being the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. 

Özgür Gündem’s staff have been assassinated, its editor arrested and presses bombed. “So when Ayşe put her name, with 56 others, to the newspaper’s masthead, she knew was doing,” said Tim. Not long after putting together a package for Mothering Sunday for the paper, they came for her. Originally the prosecutor called for a sentence of 14 years; many court appearances later, this was reduced to a year and a half and in March last year she entered jail, joining the 120-plus journalists believed to be behind bars.

“We need to support Ayşe and her colleagues. We need to shame Erdogan in the eyes of the world,” said Tim. “My strong feeling is that countries fret about their reputations and we must put pressure on Turkey and all the other regimes repressing press freedom.” As part of the NUJ’s campaign, branch secretaries will be asked to write letters condemning the Turkish government and sign a birthday card for her in October, if she is still in prison.

Another important part of the NUJ’s work is its support of an IFJ draft convention on the safety and independence of journalists and other media workers, written by Carmen Draghici, senior lecturer in law, City, University of London. She explained how the IFJ was seeking to enshrine into international law safeguards and rights for journalists, including protection of sources, and an end to the impunity of the killers of journalists; only one out of 10 murders of journalists is resolved.  (Slides from Carmen’s presentation on the draft convention can be obtained by emailing campaigns@nuj.org.uk).

Tags: , world press freedom day, international, lyra mckee, bbc persian, turkey, ifj, journalist safety, journalists killed, journalists intimidated, Ayşe Düzkan, Carmen Draghici, Kasra Naji, Mariela Kohon, Jeremy Corbyn, psj, palestinian journalists' syndicate, palestine, jerusalem, northern ireland