Jeremy Dear

Text of speech by NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear to conference Journalism under Threat in Belfast on November 22 2003.

Today's conference is both vital and timely. Indeed it couldn't be more vital and timely.

This week a journalist in Colombia was shot twice in the head in broad daylight as he walked to his car. The attack took place in front of dozens of witnesses. He was the 8th journalist to be murdered this year. More than 100 have been murdered in past decade and the killers act with impunity - not one single successful prosecution of those responsible for these murders has taken place.

In Palestine James Miller's murder by the IDF as he held a white flag aloft was captured on his own camera. James joins a growing list of journalists murdered in the Middle East - the killers join a growing list of those who escape prosecution for the killings.

In Iraq, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Ukraine and Eritrea amongst others dozens of journalists have been tortured or killed in just the past few months.

Journalists have gone from being innocents caught in the crossfire to the intended targets themselves. But it is all too easy to see this as something that happens to other people in far-flung places.

But we know to our pain that murder, harassment, intimidation and impunity have blighted our journalistic community too.

Here in Northern Ireland journalists have lived with intimidation and violence over many years.

We're immensely proud of the work carried out in difficult circumstances by generations of reporters, photographers and broadcasters in the face of the most sinister threats imaginable.

The murder of our member and friend Martin O'Hagan brought in to sharp focus the work of investigative journalists in NI. How tragic that it took such a brutal murder to bring about a realisation of the heroic efforts of NI journalists.

And we don't only know about murder but about impunity too. The fact that not one single conviction has been secured in the O'Hagan investigation remains an outrage.

Last time I was in Belfast I met with some journalists currently facing death threats from paramilitary organisations. Some were very honest about the fact that they decided not to run stories or carry out certain investigations to protect themselves, their families or their colleagues.

And it's hard to blame them, when 3 years after Martin's murder his killers still walk free.

This is how terrorists deal with journalists asking inconvenient questions.

Today we renew our calls for more resources to catch Martin's killers and for all leads to be followed vigorously.

Sadly, the recent attempts to intimidate the Editor and staff of the Sunday World and Anderstown News serve to remind us that the murder of Martin O'Hagan was not an isolated incident but part of a concerted campaign to intimidate journalists and threaten journalism.

And whilst NI provides the backdrop to this conference the threats to journalists are not exclusive to NI.

Only last week Sunday World Crime Editor Paul Williams and his family were evacuated after a paramilitary gang left a hoax bomb under his car. This is the latest in a series of threats against Paul who belongs to a fine tradition of Irish crime reporters.

Just as the murder of Veronica Guerin did not prevent journalists exposing corruption among Dublin drug barons nor will the latest threats silence those who carry on the work of exposing crime and corruption.

Whilst it is right we highlight such dramatic threats it would be wrong to assume the only threats to journalism come from the barrel of a gun.

The terrorising of journalists isn't just done by shadowy figures in balaclavas but also by governments and organisations who use the apparatus of law or the agents of the state to suppress, manipulate and distort the information they do not want the public to know and to terrorise the journalists involved through fear with the weapons of injunctions, threat to imprisonment, financial ruin and the seizure of information.

The Hutton Enquiry shows the lengths to which the UK government will go to seek to suppress a legitimate story. Not just in David Kelly affair. It has become a central plank of government strategy to attack those who ask awkward questions.

David Blunkett's attacks on the BBC over its investigation into racism in the police force was just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of attacking journalists the government should be rooting out the racists the programme exposed in the public interest.

A grave threat to journalism would be if BBC became timid in face of these government attacks and threats to its future.

Journalism is also under threat from the increasing attempts to force journalists to reveal their sources.

Bill Goodwin, Alex Thompson/Lena Ferguson, Ed Moloney, Martin Bright, Robin Ackroyd to name just a few have faced or are facing such attempts to get them to hand over notes or names.

We reaffirm our commitment to protect sources and protect our members who refuse to reveal their sources. Reality is that if any journalist is forced to disclose their sources it will have a chilling effect on all future journalistic investigations. Only winners will be those who seek to pull a cloak of secrecy over fraud, malpractice and corruption.

As if existing laws not enough new laws are introduced which threaten our right to report.

We will hear later about many such cases but just last week in the name of War on Terror journalists in London were arrested, penned in, prevented from gaining access and had material seized.

In the South of Ireland the NUJ continues, and will continue, to resist attempts by the Irish Justice Minister to criminalize police contacts with journalists and attempts to introduce a statutory press council.

And alongside all this journalism is under the gravest threat from the increasing commercialisation of information and concentration of media ownership.

In UK just four companies own national daily newspapers accounting for over 86% of daily sales and 90% of Sunday sales.

In the broadcasting industry news/current affairs is increasingly squeezed out of prime time slots and audience share not quality becomes the defining factor. In UK Commercial Sector news/current affairs represents just 2.6% of peak time programming.

The recent Granada/Carlton merger and the passage of the Communications Act serve to make the situation worse and create an environment where information is a commodity to be bought, sold and controlled by wealthy few at expense of the many.

All happening at time when PSB under attack across Europe when concept of a well-funded, publicly owned, publicly accountable broadcast organisation is under attack from both the politicians and those commercial rivals who would gain from the marginalisation of public service broadcasting commitments.

Commercialisation has also gone hand in hand with cuts in resources devoted to training, staffing of newsrooms and in particular cuts in resources for investigative journalism. The failure to fund newsrooms, inadequate resourcing of editorial divisions, the supremacy of accountants and the demand for market share over editorial values are tyrannies which pose daily threats to journalism in every sector where we have members. I hope I have been able to set today's conference in some context.

Today there will be many important discussions and there are many lessons to be learned but we will all come away with one truth. Without strong union organisation, without a powerful independent voice for journalists, without a campaigning organisation prepared to defend journalists and journalism we cannot fact up to the threats to journalism.

The NUJ has a proud history in opposing those who would seek to silence the truth. Today pay tribute to that history and all those who carry on their work despite the threats and renew our commitment to building both a framework of law and a climate in which journalists can work without fear of harassment, intimidation and terror.

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