By Clare Hymes
On Wednesday night, Delphine Halgand, the U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders, spoke to students at The George Washington University about the importance of press freedom in the international community.
The event was jointly hosted by MediaFile and George Washington’s International Affairs Society.
The French-national turned Washington, D.C. resident explained to university students the role Reporters Without Borders (RWB) plays to journalists at home and abroad. With 150 correspondents in 150 countries around the world, RWB has the ability to advocate and assist those in the field who struggle to let their voice be known. These are who Halgand calls, “the unknown heroes of information.”
Halgand described how RWB works to benefit newsrooms around the world, through advocacy and assistance. RWB also helps reporters find legal aid, and is able to provide them with health insurance and safe housing in the midst of a crisis.
“It’s important to understand that we are not defending journalists because they are amazing people because they are not,” said Halgand. “It’s because press freedom is the key to any democratic regime.”
In 2015 alone there were 67 journalists killed worldwide, two-thirds of which occurred in countries that were supposedly at peace. These deaths were more likely caused by reporters going after stories uncovering corruption or environmental issues, rather than casualties of war.
RWB annually publishes their own World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries, that measures the status of media rights within a given state.
According to RWB, the deadliest countries for journalists, foreign or nationals, are Iraq, Syria, France, Yemen, South Sudan, India, and Mexico. Meanwhile, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan remain the biggest prisons for news providers.
Halgand argued that it is within these countries that journalists are either targeted or kidnapped. There are approximately 50 journalists around the world right now in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya who are being held against their will.
“If journalists are kidnapped it’s because the groups involved in war want to silence independent voices on the ground,” Halgand said.
As the U.S. director of this organization, Halgand has spent a majority of her time trying to find Austin Tice, a 35-year-old American journalist who has been missing in Syria since 2012. As a freelancer for McClatchy and the Washington Post, Tice was last seen in a video in September of 2012 being held by armed men. Since there has been very little to report on regarding Tice’s whereabouts, his story and the public’s awareness of his situation have since diminished.
“Too many journalists died in Syria and Yemen, and it’s important to bring those that we know are still alive home,” Halgand said about Tice’s case, “it became personal.”
Halgand and RWB has implored the Obama administration to find Tice, but continues to find that the battle for journalists’ rights do not end there. ”Even in the U.S. the situation is not perfect, and we still have to fight to continue to protect press freedom,” she said.
Halgand has also been working with American authorities on protecting the rights of journalists and civilians during recent unrest throughout various cities around the country. She described how American citizens who go and practice their democratic freedoms are commonly met with arrests for unlawful assembly.
“With the election, with the Black Lives Matter protests, yes just for one hour, yes it’s just for one night, but in the country of the first amendment this should not happen.”
Halgand ended her discussion by encouraging students to get involved with RWB and their mission to bring press freedom to the world. She encouraged them to start or join their local RWB chapter, spread the word about the #FreeAustinTice campaign, and utilize the RWB’s Medill/Foley Foundation/RSF Teaching Guide, a place for students and professionals to learn critical information about how to cover war zones and protests around the world.
Although Halgand warned students about the dangers of the attacks against press freedom, she added the hope she has found through her time at RWB. Recent accomplishments include helping free Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian from detention in Iran, as well as Khadija Ismayilova who is a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani desk.
Halgand’s main message of the critical importance of the fourth estate underlined just how vital organizations like RWB are for those journalists on the ground and in the newsroom.
“The press is to make the powerful accountable,” she said. “So if we don’t have anybody we can trust to play this role in the democracy we are missing a very important part.”