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February 17, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Journalistic Perils

Published by Farrago in 2009

If you want to be a journalist, you’d have to remove yourself from the face of the earth to avoid any region that may submit you to a violation of your basic human rights. Iran is, obviously, one place to avoid; in July they replaced China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists (24 journalists have been detained since the elections)[1]. The protests over the alleged rigging of recent elections have sparked an increased in the detainment of prominent personalities and journalists; Masoud Bastani, a reporter, was arrested by Iranian authorities on July 5 as he attempted to discover the whereabouts of his pregnant journalist wife[2].

If you think Iran is volatile, you’d be well-advised to stay away from the Asia-Pacific region. According to a report from the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance entitled Secrecy and Red Tape: The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2009, a third of the global toll of journalists killed in 2008 came from this area. Out of the 31 killed in the Asia-Pacific, 23 were the victims of premeditated murder, with motivations currently unknown.

Back in the Middle East, Pakistan also holds a title as one of the most dangerous places for journalists; already, in 2009, five journalists have been killed, with three of them murdered. One of them was 28-year-old Musa Khan Khel, kidnapped at gunpoint while reporting on a peace rally celebrating the introduction of Sharia law in the Swat Valley. The discovery of his bullet-riddled body confirmed the fourth journalist murdered in the Swat Valley in the past 12 months. What makes the life of a journalist so expendable, and what motivates various associations to want them dead?

The answer is not as simple as merely blowing open a case on corrupt government officials. Relationships bigger than individuals – that of state-to-state politics – have too often claimed journalists for sacrificial lambs. In June 2008, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Le, were sentenced to 12 years hard labour for ‘committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry’[3]. The two journalists became North Korea’s bargaining chip after and a tax on Washington’s ability to continue to pressure North Korea to back down on its nuclear capabilities. Ling and Le were not reporting on these tensions—both women were working on a documentary about North Korean refugees, mostly women and children, who had fled the country hoping to find food in China.

Some places, however, are simply volatile for journalists: Mexican journalists face the prospect of working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Since 2000, 24 Mexican journalists have been killed in their homeland[4]. Africa is undoubtedly a dangerous place for journalists to travel or work. Somalia has a particularly bad track record; Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan had allegedly been held captive in Somalia for nearly 10 months before they were allowed to contact Canadian Broadcaster CTV. In 2009, five journalists have already been killed in Somalia.  

Don’t think, however, that journalism is Australia has no obstacles of its own; anti-terrorism legislation has created a myriad of traps for Australian publishers, writers, and reporters. Julian Burnside, a barrister, human rights and refugee advocate, has noted that the new Australian Security and Intelligence Operations (ASIO) legislation has tipped the balance away from democratic principles and towards the need to protect national security[5] in the face of growing concern over ongoing terrorist attacks. The Australian Security and Intelligence Operations Legislation Amendment Act 2003 gags publishers from releasing information about the ‘active operation of the national security force under warrant for up to two years, “even if the operation is in violation of international human rights conventions”’[6]. The same act also prohibits the disclosure of any information relating to an ASIO warrant until 28 days after it has been issued. Even if arbitrary arrests are made, or maltreatment is suffered at the hands of ASIO officers, nothing can be published for 28 days, allowing ASIO’s conduct to escape public scrutiny[7]. But personal persecution is not the biggest threat to Australia’s democratic system. As ABC-TV journalist Liz Jackson points out, ‘It’s the freedom of the media to tell the full story, not the jailing of the journalist that is at stake’[8].

The Anti-Terrorism (No. 2) Bill 2005, for example, leaves a publisher of information relative to ASIO activities liable for ‘reckless disclosure’. This effectively leaves journalists without proper defences against the government’s attempt to censor publishers through anti-terrorism-related laws, because as the MEEA notes, ‘there is nothing in the [Anti-Terrorism (No. 2) Bill 2005) to suggest that publishing ‘operational information’ that is in the public interest is defensible against the definition of “reckless” disclosure’[9]. And the updated sedition legislation has changed ‘incite’ to ‘urges’, causing concern among the press because ‘urge’ has no clear definition[10]. Five years in jail for ‘sedition’, or for speaking in uncertain terms about the government’s terrorism-related activities, is enough to force any Australian journalist or publisher to fear exercising their implied democratic right to free speech.

What can a journalist do? Ironically, the only effective measure is to keep performing the task that initially attracted the attention of state agencies in the first place, namely reportage and exposure of government activities. The power of the media to counterbalance the despotic nature of states is well known, and without it, democratic societies would cease to exist.

There is, however, one benefit to the persecution of benefits; journalists have the power of publicity in their hands, and they refuse to let their own kind, jailed or murdered, disappear from the public eye. 

[1] ‘Iran is World’s Top-Jailer of Journalists’, Committee to Protect Journalists, <>, July 7, 2009,

[2] International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, ‘Lives of Detained Pregnant Journalists and Paralyzed Politician in Danger’, (sic), 6 July 2009.

[3] Sang-Hun, Choe, ‘N. Korea Sentences 2 U.S. Journalists to 12 Years of Hard Labour’, The New York Times, 8 June 2009, <>, accessed 12 June 2009.

[4] S. Lynne Walker, ‘Mexican Journalists Face Ever-Increasing Danger’, Committee to Protect Journalists,, 12 Feb 2009, (accessed 5 June 2009).

[5] Sandra Fonseca, ‘Terrorism Powers and the Implications for Democracy’, <;, 24 November 2005, (accessed 5 June 2009).

[6] Mark Pearson, The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law: Dealing with Legal and Ethical Issues, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2007, p. 314.

[7] Rosina Di Marzo et al., ‘The Media Muzzled: Australia’s 2006 Press Freedom Report’, 2006, p. 7.

[8] Liz Jackson, ‘Unknown Unknowns’, featured in Rosina Di Marzo et al., ‘The Media Muzzled: Australia’s 2006 Press Freedom Report’, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, 2006, p. 5.

[9] Rosina Di Marzo, et al., ‘The Media Muzzled: Australia’s 2006 Press Freedom Report’, p. 7.

[10] (No author listed), ‘Information Sheet – Sedition Law in Australia’, Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2006, p. 3.


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