When governments speak out in support of journalists under threat it demonstrates that the world is watching, says José Carlos Zamora, son of a jailed journalist.
Official statements from governments calling out the targeting of journalists add an important dimension to existing efforts by campaign or activist groups, says Zamora, whose father, José Rubén Zamora, is currently behind bars in Guatemala.
“It feels different and they receive it differently when it comes from their peers internationally,” says Zamora.
Zamora Sr, a veteran journalist in Guatemala and founder of the newspaper El Periodico, has won several media freedom awards for his reporting. He was jailed on charges of money laundering in June 2023, receiving a six-year sentence.
Two of the three charges have since been dismissed; the sentence for the third has been overturned and Zamora awaits a retrial in February 2024.
In May 2023, the MFC co-chairs at the time – Canada and the Netherlands – both spoke out about a court order to investigate El Periodico. Other MFC member countries have also spoken out on this case, including the US in March 2023.
“It’s very personal and emotional, this fact of knowing you are not alone,” says Zamora.
Zamora highlighted that, from a strategic perspective, a dual approach can work. A swift response from individual nations to attacks on journalists can be built upon with coordinated joint statements and action.
“One shouldn’t exclude the other,” says Zamora. “One is very emergency-based, and then the longer-term one is more important and has more weight. But both work very well.”
A managed series of remarks with weekly publication of a different country’s comments could be another approach, suggested Zamora, to help feed successive news cycles and keep the story part of the global conversation.
“I think that would be very powerful,” he says . “You need to ensure that any coverage you have lasts for a long period of time. It’s a marathon.”
Members of the MFC have jointly spoken out on a range of situations and cases in recent years. In 2022, the MFC published a joint statement on the media freedom situation in Venezuela, which was covered by media in the region.
After publication one Venezuelan journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I believe that it has added a grain in the effort to defend the work and to make the authorities aware that [journalists] are not alone.” The statement was shared by the National College of Journalists and the Press Workers’ Union, “as an informative element that will help us members to know that we are protected internationally”.
MFC members have also spoken out on the situation for journalists in Belarus, both collectively – the most recent joint statement being in 2021 – and individually, when a rapid response is needed.
Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, commented that: “The solidarity and support to the Belarusian mass media, human rights defenders, and civil society by democratic governments and international organizations are badly needed nowadays. Due to this international solidarity and support, the Belarusian authorities will learn that they won’t be able to continue repressions as discreetly as they want them to be – i.e. in the absence of a noticeable response from democratic governments and international structures.”
But can these types of government statements really influence perpetrators of media freedom abuses? Zamora believes they can.
“I think they would act much worse if they didn’t feel they were being observed,” he says. “So every post, every tweet, every statement tells them: ‘We continue to watch. We haven’t forgotten what you’re doing, and we are looking closely.’ I think that is a deterrent against them doing even worse things.”
Zamora also commented on the importance of visas – both providing them to journalists who need to flee their country, and denying them to perpetrators of media freedom violations.
On the denial of visas, Zamora believes this is another way to influence powerful individuals who would otherwise act with impunity. “I think everything would change for them if they knew that there’s nowhere to go,” he says.
Meanwhile the provision of emergency visas to journalists at risk has become a key action taken by multiple MFC members, many of which have been guided by the recommendations of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom on this matter. In 2022, MFC countries provided at least 1400 emergency visas to human rights defenders including journalists.
“I think that’s incredible,” says Zamora. “I think that’s useful because, right now, there’s around 30 journalists in exile from Guatemala, and it’s a big problem – they live, but their migratory legal status is a mess and they can’t work.”
International solidarity matters, concludes Zamora. “I think a person who is in my father’s position would be in a far worse position if nobody was watching,” he says. “It gives you hope in humanity, right?”