Our Voices

#RFKChat: ‘We cannot become complacent about the safety of journalists anywhere,’ says RSF’s Rebecca Vincent

  • By
  • Ohimai Amaize

On Friday, May 20, 2022, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights hosted its first ever Tweet Chat with Rebecca Vincent, Director of Operations and Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders. The chat, which comes ahead of the forthcoming Robert F. Kennedy Book & Journalism Awards, scheduled for Tuesday, May 24, 2022, was organized as part of the organization’s ongoing commemoration of World Press Freedom Day throughout the month of May.

Below are a few excerpts from the chat:

Hi Rebecca Vincent. We are delighted to have you join us today for our Tweet Chat.

Thanks very much for having me! I’m looking forward to chatting about global press freedom.

Great! The theme of this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day is “Journalism under digital siege.” What are the major threats that journalists encounter today in the digital space?

On World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders launched the 2022 edition of our World Press Freedom Index, highlighting the disastrous effects of news and information chaos – the effects of a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda. Within democratic societies, divisions are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media and online disinformation circuits. At the international level, propaganda wars are being waged against democracies. This has all contributed to a heavily polarized global media climate. We’re also seeing increasingly blurred lines between offline and online spaces, impacting the climate for safety of journalists. Too often online threats can turn into real life violence. More needs to be done to effectively address these threats, particularly to women journalists.

Around the world, the civic space is under attack—from repressive laws to arbitrary arrests and digital surveillance targeting journalists and activists. Why is press freedom so important at this time?

If there’s any silver lining to the proliferation of attacks on press freedom around the world in recent years, it’s that there is now a better understanding of the importance of independent media and reliable information than ever before. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine evidenced how an online information war, if allowed to spread, can manifest as a physical conflict. Before that, the Covid 19 pandemic showed how important independent reporting is to public health. Our information systems are globally interconnected.

These and other global crises have resulted in a better awareness of the need to support and protect independent journalism and press freedom around the world. Now we need more concrete actions to ensure this protection – which we campaign for every day at Reporters Without Borders.

Digital technologies have enhanced free expression but they have also become a tool of repression by authoritarian regimes. What does this mean for the future of press freedom?

It means we need to be smarter, more proactive and more collective in how we address these threats, which don’t only impact the societies in question but have global implications for press freedom and freedom of information. Global problems require global, systemic solutions. We must also work to ensure that journalists and media outlets are equipped with the right tools to fight online threats and attacks, whether circumventing censorship, like through Reporters Without Borders’ #CollateralFreedom project, or ensuring they have access to VPNs and encryption tools.

Your recently released 2022 World Press Freedom Index identified the threat of media polarization which is fueling divisions within countries like the United States. How can journalism overcome the danger within?

It’s not only the US – we noted increased polarization globally, within countries but also between countries. This is weakening democracies and fuelling tension around the world. Reporters Without Borders is seeking to address these threats to journalism via specific solutions like our #JournalismTrustInitiative, and through the lens of the broader threats to democracy, such as our work with the Forum on Information & Democracy.

In the 2022 Index, 28 countries are on your red list, where the situation is classified as “very bad”. In which of these countries are journalists most endangered?

The countries at the very bottom of the #RSFIndex this year were Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Iran, Eritrea and North Korea, indicating they had the poorest press freedom climates in the world, for a variety of reasons. But it’s important to note that journalists face growing risks everywhere. Last year, 61% of killings of journalists occurred in countries meant to be “at peace,” and most were deliberately targeted. This shows we cannot become complacent about the safety of journalists anywhere.

Globally, the situation for safety of journalists remains critical, with a staggering 28 journalists already killed in 2022. It’s time for concrete actions by states not only to end impunity for these crimes, but to prevent them in the first place.

At least seven journalists have been killed while covering the Russia-Ukraine war. Are newsrooms doing enough to guarantee the dignity, safety and protection of journalists covering conflict?

Professional newsrooms generally take the responsibility to ensure the safety of their journalists very seriously, providing them with the needed training, equipment, and other support. This is not always the case for freelancers, whose safety should also be of utmost concern.

In Ukraine the problem isn’t a lack of support for journalists covering the conflict. It’s clear that Russian forces are deliberately targeting journalists, which constitutes a war crime. At Reporters Without Borders, we’ve been filing complaints documenting these crimes with the International Criminal Court.

Two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Next week Tuesday, on May 24, we will host our annual Book & Journalism Awards. How can these types of awards help to protect and raise the profile of journalists at risk?

Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement was such an important moment for journalism. We were so pleased for Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and hope that this recognition has offered them some protection in making it clear the international community is on their side. However, recent developments highlight the serious risk they are still under. In March, 16 new cyber libel cases were opened against Maria Ressa and Rappler, making it clear they are still active targets. In Russia, Novaya Gazeta has been forced to suspend activities until the end of the war in Ukraine, as a result of the Kremlin’s policies of censorship, and Dmitry Muratov himself was recently subjected to a red paint and acetone attack on a train. These examples of escalating pressure show that awards themselves are not enough. We need to see more concrete international actions beyond these words of recognition, to protect journalists and journalism and hold those who violate press freedom to account.

As a human rights advocacy organization working to protect journalists, how can organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights collaborate more effectively to protect the civic space around the world?

There is an urgent need for greater collaboration among those who care about journalism and press freedom, particularly in mobilizing the public and holding our own governments to account. At Reporters Without Borders, we’re always open to new ideas and new partnerships!

Thank you, Rebecca, for joining us today on #RFKChat. We had a great conversation! Thanks to everyone who followed. We hope you join us next Tuesday for the Robert F. Kennedy Book & Journalism Awards.

Thank you so much to Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights for the opportunity to chat today – we’re grateful for the support! To learn more about Reporters Without Borders’ work, visit rsf.org/en.