Unfettered reporting threatened – what Assange extradition hearings reveal

Julian Assange's extradition hearing took its last evidence at the Old Bailey, London yesterday. Closing submissions will be made in writing and Judge Baraitser's ruling will be handed down on 4 January at The Old Bailey.

Until 23 May 2019 journalists quite reasonably held opinions about Julian Assange and his legal tussles that were every bit as multitudinous as those of the public at large.

These might include the view that he is an irresponsible narcissist; that he is tainted by the Swedish sexual assault allegations; or, that he is a seer whose revelations have unmasked the shocking truths of modern warfare.

By the middle of spring last year, the Metropolitan Police had arrested Assange and he had been jailed for skipping bail in 2012. The US government had requested his extradition on a single charge of computer hacking. If convicted, he might serve five years in prison.

Then in May last year, in the upmarket Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, the pursuit of Julian Assange took a new and deeply troubling twist. A grand jury returned a second, superseding indictment that included 18 charges, 17 of them for violations of the Espionage Act.

Assange himself now faced a potential sentence with a release date more than a century beyond his most optimistic lifespan. It was in the detail of the charges, however, that a critical juncture for media freedom stood out.

The indictment includes charges that Assange had:

"unlawfully obtaining and disclosed classified documents related to the national defense"; "actively solicited United States classified information, including by publishing a list of 'Most Wanted Leaks' that sought, among other things, classified documents"; "engaged in real-time discussions regarding (Chelsea) Manning’s transmission of classified records";  and, "actively encouraged Manning to provide more information and agreed to crack a password".

What this amounts to is cultivating a source to provide information – the most basic and universal journalistic activity. Jameel Jaffer, professor of Law and Journalism at Columbia University, put it bluntly in his evidence to Assange’s extradition hearing.

"The indictment is mainly a description of Assange engaging in core journalistic activities. These are activities that the government’s apparent theory of liability would criminalise".

Whether or not you consider Assange a journalist, as some had agonised over, is rendered irrelevant. He is being prosecuted for activities that a great many journalists undertake every day of their working lives.

Nor is concern about such a precedent merely rhetorical. Following the '9/11' attack in 2001 successive US administrations have become increasingly aggressive about secrecy.

The quantity of government documents that are classified has increased exponentially. Paul Feldstein, a former ABC investigative reporter and now professor of history at the university of Maryland told the court that:

"over-classification of government records is widely acknowledged as rampant to the point of absurdity. Every government study of the issue over the last six decades has found widespread classification of information that the government had no basis to conceal".

Nor is the greater proportion of official documents being marked 'secret' the only change. Tougher sanctions for at least some government employees who leaked classified documents are also evident post 9/11. More whistleblowers were prosecuted under the Espionage Act during the Obama administrations than under any previous presidency. The current Whitehouse incumbent looks set to trump that record.

Of course such prosecutions are highly selective. The more senior the leaker, it seems, the greater the chance of lenient treatment. Jaffer told the court:

"Five years ago the government considered filing Espionage Act charges against General David Petraeus", 

"(It had) concluded that he shared classified information, including code words for secret intelligence programs and the identities of covert agents. The government ultimately allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanour charge of mishandling sensitive material."

Not so lucky Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner and a clutch of other relatively junior workers handed long jail sentences for Espionage Act violations. All of these prosecuted whistleblowers, however, were government employees who chose to share restricted material with non-security-cleared outsiders. Pursuing a foreign publisher of leaked information is wholly new territory.

The theoretical possibility of the Espionage Act being used against journalists and publishers is not new – but its deployment for this purpose is unprecedented.

The Espionage Act – a First World War knee-jerk statute – deploys terms that are unusually broad and vague. It provides not only for the prosecution of the unauthorised publishers of classified information, but also all subsequent publishers. Anyone repeating contents from a story in the public domain that is based on classified document could, theoretically, be in the firing line. "It’s a loaded gun pointed at the head of the press" said legal scholars Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr.

"Various administrations have considered prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act", said Trevor Timm director of the San Francisco-based Freedom Of The Press Foundation. "In each case, prosecutors have accepted that it would be unconstitutional".

Assange's case is groundbreaking – it is the first to be pursued this way against a publisher. Most disturbing of all, it would create a precedent that US administrations could deploy against journalists anywhere in the world if their stories relied upon information gleaned from classified documents.

Of course, no one believes that if Assange is successfully prosecuted, the US will initiate actions against every reporter who relies for a story on leaked or classified documents. The US government would have neither the time nor the resources, and anyway frequently leaks material deliberately in pursuit of its own ends. A legal menace selectively deployed, however, is the more deadly.

Any journalist in receipt of classified information might reflect that, in all probability, they could rely on the leaked material with impunity. But certitude there would be not. Any story that happened to rub the US administration up the wrong way might provoke an indictment similar to the one currently levelled against Assange.

By then, of course, Assange may well have disappeared into the 'supermax prison' ADX Colorado for a term and in conditions that would make a medieval jailer blush. The public might well forget his name – but Assange's head on a spike will cast a darkening shadow over any reporter offered a classified document. Whistleblowers will be advised to shut up and knuckle down while beneficial sunlight will fall on fewer and fewer of the actions taken in the name of the public. It is a fate to be feared by any journalist who cares about the trade we ply.

I attended the hearings as an observer on behalf of the NUJ and the IFJ. I am the only reporter whose daily coverage appeared in a printed newspaper.

Spring a leak: Assange’s case takes centre stage

Originally published in the Morning Star 7 September 2020

DURING an impasse in Julian Assange’s extradition hearing in February, I found myself sharing a bench in the court’s public area with three track-suited men in their early 20s. Another case being heard that day had brought them to Belmarsh. They were frenetically boisterous — perhaps a reaction to an alien environment.

Outside the court, chants from upward of 100 demonstrators intensified. “Don’t extradite Assange,” they chorused, accompanied by vuvuzelas and air horns. Ordinary conversation inside the building was momentarily drowned out.

“What’s that about?” asked one of the lads of his mates. He peered through the window at the banners and placards. The trio agreed that they had no idea.

It is illustrative of the challenge facing those of us campaigning for the extradition charges against the Wikileaks founder to be dropped.

Assange’s bombshell revelations were a decade ago. Few, if any, young adults have first-hand memory of the outrage of the “collateral murder” video, or the devastating revelations of the Afghan and Iraq war logs.

The resumption of proceedings today provides the opportunity for Assange’s legal team to imprint those outrages on the national consciousness. February’s hearings involved relatively arcane arguments over important, if sometimes baffling, legal principles. The coming three weeks will be dominated by witnesses called by Assange’s lawyers.

Whether these make the Australian’s case a touchstone issue remains to be seen. For the man in the dock, however, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

Between 2006 and 2010 Wikileaks published, or co-published with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, the most extraordinary catalogue of classified US military material. Its breadth was dizzying and included the involvement of US military in avoidable civilian deaths, the deliberate abuse of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and the secret use of drone strikes in Yemen.

By 2010, US authorities appear to have decided that Wikileaks must be stopped. Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who had disclosed nearly 750,000 classified records to Assange, was arrested. The Wikileaks founder, meanwhile, was accused of sexual assault in Sweden. Believing that the Swedish accusations, which he has always denied, were a pretext for his extradition to the US, in 2012 Assange sought sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

There he remained until 2019 when Ecuador allowed British police to enter the embassy and arrest him. Assange was initially jailed for breaching bail conditions seven years earlier. During this sentence, Swedish authorities discontinued their investigation of the sexual assault accusations.

An extradition request was subsequently filed by the US and it is to this that Westminster Magistrates, sitting at the Central Criminal Court, will return today.

The US wishes to prosecute Assange on 18 charges mostly arising from the Espionage Act. If convicted, these could result in a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, probably in solitary confinement with very limited access to family, friends or lawyers.

Unusually, over the summer, the US submitted a “superseding indictment” — fine tuning their case for extradition.

There is much that is troubling about the entire application. If allowed, it would legitimise the application of the US to prosecute foreign nationals whose writing or publication angered the State Department. It would allow for deportation on political grounds. And it would sanction extradition of a subject assessed to have been tortured and who is psychologically fragile.

Potential implications go well beyond the personal, of course. The general secretary of the National Union of Journalists Michelle Stanistreet has described the deportation request as “one of the gravest threats to free expression in my lifetime.”

Assange’s case against deportation will focus on the legal tests that the application fails.

During his time in the Ecuadorian embassy, for example, it is known that Assange was extensively bugged, including during meetings with his lawyers. The court will hear from former employees of UC Global, the Spanish company that installed the bugs. A key question will be to whom the footage from the secret camera was supplied. Some contend that the company was contracted by US security forces. Assange’s lawyers will argue that a fair trail in the US is impossible when a basic right like confidential access to lawyers has been violated.

The court will also hear from mental health experts, such as Michael Kopelman, the Emeritus Processor of Neuropsychiatry at Kings College London. Based on examinations undertaken in Belmarsh prison where Assange is held, he will report on the potentially devastating psychological impact of extradition. His evidence was considered key to computer scientist Lauri Love’s successful appeal against extradition to the US in 2018.

Outside court “team Assange” is also playing a more sophisticated game than has sometimes been the case. The exposure offered by his partner Stella Morris and their children is steadily humanising a central character who has often been harshly portrayed.

Until the intervention of Covid, the Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign boasted that each of its protests was bigger than the last. Without the pandemic a major rally would have filled Methodist Central Hall over the weekend. Its “Zoom” substitution was a bloodless proxy, albeit with interventions from Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Alice Walker.

Whether any of this persuades Judge Venessa Baraitser that Assange’s extradition would be unlawful is for the future. The hearings, slated for three weeks, could be extended. Baraitser’s decision will take longer still.

When the decision does come, if his plight is understood by the more distracted citizenry, then it will be no small victory. Indeed, while triumph in the court of public opinion delivers no cell-door key, it potentially serves a cause far beyond judicial reach.

Image: Tim Dawson

Lockdown justice and the dial-in press bench

Originally published in the August 2020 edition of NUJ Informed.

When HM Courts and Tribunals Service wanted a poster boy for their revised approach to media relations, the Evening Standard’s Tristan Kirk stepped up. Speaking in a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) video he hoped that new guidelines would “smooth out that relationship between journalists and court staff ”.

Lockdown, alas, has strained such cordiality. In early August (2020) Tristan Kirk tweeted about the shortcomings of arrangements to accommodate the media at high-profile hearings, concluding with a blunt: “This isn’t good enough @ HMCTSgovuk”.

Such frustration is indicative of just how challenging Covid has made the open administration of justice.

Kirk is not the only reporter to have become exasperated. Early in lockdown, telephone access was arranged to allow reporters access to Julian Assange’s case management hearings. The audio quality one day was so poor that following proceedings was impossible. On another, those dialling in heard nothing because the switch on the feed was not pressed.

What issues have arisen must, of course, be judged against the extraordinary backdrop. Courts are used to their procedures evolving over decades. Covid changed all that. Within a week in March, the conventional administration of justice in England, and other jurisdictions, was suspended and largely unfamiliar new procedures forced into the spotlight.

New rules were hastily enacted to allow video access to court hearings. Fewer than 1,000 cases were heard using audio or video technology in the last week of March, when the lockdown began; by mid- April it was more than 3,000 a week.

Throughout this, the needs of journalists were part of the planning, according to a MoJ spokesperson: “Working closely with journalists, we have also issued new guidance to court staff on how to help during the pandemic, and set up a national helpline to directly access support if needed.” Before lockdown was eased, even criminal cases were allowing journalists to dial in.

The complications have not just been technical ones, however. To know which hearings to apply for dial in access for, court lists are necessary. Magistrates, in particular, have not always been good at issuing these. Access details for one of the Assange hearings were widely shared on the internet, with the result that thousands dialled in, rendering the proceedings inaudible.

Experienced court reporter James Doleman, for example, thinks that telephone and video access to courts should be retained. “It is always better
to be in court, if that is possible, but particularly for shorter hearings, calling in makes a massive difference, often avoiding a round trip of hundreds of miles for a twenty-minute hearing.”

Charlotte Tobbit of the Press Gazette was able to dial in to Belfast High Court for the judgment in the No Stone Unturned case from England. She said: “It was easy to hear the judge in the courtroom and others who spoke briefly from remote locations. My worry was over how to get the written judgment afterwards and indeed the issue of disclosure of documents is trickier than if you are in a courtroom and able to go up to the relevant party.

“My experience at a magistrates’ court was mixed. I was impressed with how helpful court staff were by phone and email in terms of providing access and then the names of the people who spoke during the hearing afterwards. But it was incredibly difficult to hear everything that went on in the courtroom an other remote observers have found this elsewhere.

“If sound issues can be ironed out and the ability to dial-in does continue for a long time then this could be excellent. But there needs to be consistency across the courts.”

Dial-in and video-link access also poses a more profound question. If it is available for members of the press, should it also be available to others with an interest in court proceedings – the families of victims of crime, for example. Some argue that open justice would be better served if all proceedings were publicly streamed. For the moment that is almost certainly a step too far for UK courts, but as technology improves, it is a prospect that will be raised with growing insistance.

At the instigation of the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, NUJ representative will shortly meet MoJ officials to discuss how these, and other issues might be progressed.

Reporting fictions: a novel start for journalists

In the rat-infested basement of The Public Benefit Boot Company in Leeds City Market, Harry Proctor was sacked. His boss had caught him reading a novel. The tattered pages had already worked their magic, however. It was 1932 and Proctor, a now unemployed fifteen-year-old, was in thrall to the promise of Fleet Street. 

Seven years later, he joined the staff of the Mirror. Within a decade he was arguably London’s most celebrated reporter.  “Tell Harry Proctor about it” became a nationally-known catch phrase, such was his fame in the 1950s.

The book for which Proctor forsook his role as bootseller’s dogsbody was Phillip Gibbs’ Street Of Adventure, published in 1909. Re-reading this antique text begs a question. Are there novels yet that might prepare a young person for the life of a reporter?

Phillip Gibbs

Surprisingly, Gibbs’ century-old potboiler has enduring qualities. The Fleet Street of roaring presses, proud compositors, and companionable drinking holes is long gone. But for all the evolution of newspapers, much is unchanged. The toil of finding and processing stories is recognisable, even if the deployment of shoe leather has become rather more metaphorical than it was in the 1900s.

It was a rackety trade back then, in Gibbs’ account. Every job was insecure, ‘weekend warriors’ undermined freelance earnings, and the intensity of work burnt out most practitioners in the end. “What we want is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Poor Pressman”, one of the reporters suggests. Funnily enough, 200 miles to the north, the National Union Of Journalists had just been formed to perform just that function.

Street Of Adventure owes much of its narrative to the actual story of the Tribune, a Liberal-party supporting daily. It launched in 1906 in a blaze of glory, only to sink two years later, behind a mountain of debt. In Gibb’s telling, an innocent, Frank Lutterell, joins its reporting staff, only be to blooded on assignment, brought low by the ceaseless graft, and seduced by the charms of a colleague.

Gibbs – a truly prolific journalist who covered both world wars and penned nearly 80 books – is at his best on newspaper culture. The hive effort necessary for the daily production of a newspaper is recognisably evoked, likewise the curious occupational demarkations, and the sometimes extreme personalities that people every newsroom.

He is at his most poignant on the experience of working on a title as it closes – something I have experienced twice. He perfectly captures a sensation akin to bereavement, followed by conflicted choices, friendly leg ups, and the steady dissolution of a family.

Denise Mina’s Field Of Blood (2005), set at the end of the hot-metal era, is clearly based on the Glasgow Herald of the early 1980s. Paddy Meehan is a teenage copygirl, who aspires to become a journalist. To achieve this she must endure the sectarian, bullying, macho culture, where the newspaper’s staff spend as much time in the adjacent bar as they do at their typewriters. It is an as unflinchingly bleak as it is depressingly accurate.

Some of the narrative furniture is now a thing of the past. Glasgow’s papers no longer dispatch nightly ‘calls cars’ to harvest stories from the city’s streets during the hours of darkness, and ranks of newsroom messengers have joined the roll call of historical occupations.

Like Gibbs, however, Mina captures much of the unchanging essentials of newspaper life – reverence for story-getting, appreciation of clear writing, and competing ambitions in a competitive trade.

Mina’s description of working-class, Catholic Glasgow in that era has a particularly authentic quality. Sectarianism certainly hasn’t disappeared, although is probably less naked today.

The texture Mina brings to Meehan’s character is as compelling as the setting. She battles with her weight, and a family for whom white-collar occupations are a mystery. Her determination to be a reporter, however, is unflinching. 

The unsolved child murder around which the plot turns is of a kind that few journalists will ever report, much less play a part in solving. It makes a gripping tale, nonetheless, in a way that rewriting press releases never could.

Holly Watt’s entirely contemporary To The Lions (2019) stretches the possibilities of news gathering even further. Her hero, Casey Benedict, works in the investigations department of the Post, a London-based national that has many elements recognisable from The Sunday Times, where Watt started her own career.

Her sketch of contemporary news room is rich in well-observed detail – the competition between papers, the foul-mouthed aggression of some news editors, and the thrilling randomness of assignments. She is also good on an experience common to many reporters of rubbing shoulders  with the privileged and powerful at work, while enduring poverty and borderline chaos at home.

The plot, involving door-stepping in Geneva and a stake out in an abandoned palace in Libya is fabulous, as befits a thrilling page-turner. Verisimilitude is delivered through her closely observed descriptions of the opportunistic, chancy and nerve-jangling process of extracting stories from wary or unsuspecting subjects. Helicopter-supported, undercover assignments are relatively few in the British press. The cunning, charm and occasional trickery required to obtain information has common elements whether you dealing with international gangsters or municipal officials.

If there is a canon of novels rooted in journalism, then Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) stands at its head. Loosely based on the author’s experience covering Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, it is a knock-about comedy designed as a caution against fake news. Protagonist William Boot is accidentally dispatched to cover a conflict about which he knows nothing. By way of mischief and misadventure, Waugh’s narrative enduringly crystallises numerous archetypes and tropes. Among these: “up to a point, Lord Copper” meaning “you are talking rubbish, but are too powerful for my to be able to say so”, and “funeral for a camel” denoting an outlandishly ambitious expenses claim. Both can occasionally be heard in newsrooms yet.

Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning owes much to his time at The Observer of the early 1960s. His characters are responsible for a page towards the back of the book that includes crosswords, nature notes, moral entreaties by eminent clerics, and ‘In Years Gone By’. The novel is an affectionate and funny dissection of middle class mores, but has more to say about mid-career anxiety than the process of journalism.

A few days immersed in fiction would certainly provide aspirant journalists with sufficient news-gathering tips to more than justify the effort. It is the harshness of a career in newspapers that is the real recurring theme of all these titles, however.

Neophyte news gatherers are generally dazzled by their own ambition and the imagined glamour of the industry they are joining. If nothing else, a few hours with their noses in any of these books should persuade them that, for most people, a media career is entirely without the security and certainty associated with most professions.

No one better demonstrates this than Harry Proctor, alas. Shortly before he died, at the age of 48, he penned his own memoir, namechecking his original inspiration. Street Of Disillusion is a flawed book, full of bragging, contradictions and long-forgotten tabloid triumphs. The tragedy of Proctor’s burn out, however, is palpable. Journalism took him from a rat-infested basement, to the company of royals, and pretty much back again.

Proctor rightly insists that there is nothing more engrossing, demanding or fulfilling than reporting. If following his lead is your goal, however, all these books represent sound preparation for the known unknowns.  Worthwhile too is the lesson that, just occasionally, fiction provides the most effective means of getting to the facts.

Legend dependent: only the titled achieve immortality

First published in Amateur Photographer 14 December 2019

A friend of mine has been an enthusiastic photographer for nearly 40 years. The knack of composition has always eluded him, however. In his street scenes, tarmac occupies most of the frame. Groups of friends appear without their heads. He even captures picturesque country views obscured by unrelated foreground detail.

Back in the day, I often saw him with a camera – indeed, he went through a fascinating range of exotica – a Russian twin lens reflex, a half-frame rangefinder and a Chineses Leica copy among them. Back then, I only occasionally saw his pictures – and was grateful never to have been pressed to an ‘evening with slides’.

In the past few years, however, he has been regularly posting his archival work on Facebook. What is striking is that far from showing off the sorry products of a pursuit for which he lacked aptitude, he is unveiling, little by little, an extraordinary trove of historic records.

Most of his subjects are in and around the outer London borough where he lives. But his images’ technical shortcomings are now more than made up for in the quality of his captioning. A snap of a long-forgotten pub includes the name of the landlord at the time of the picture, the names of a couple of regulars, the date of its demolition and a note of what was built in its place.

Sometimes a bus appears inadvertently in his frame. He notes how the route of the ’53' has changed, records a personal incident experienced while queuing to board and often includes and account of how the service evolved post-privatisation.

Even the unfortunately-cropped human groups (most appear to have been taken on licensed premises), might lack their heads, but their names, occupations and subsequent life stories are there in the captions.

It would be easy to think that these rolls and rolls of film that my fiend is slowly digitising, would be even more compelling, where he more conventionally photographically competent. Actually, his pictures’ apparently random quality, allied with compelling captions, give them a unique integrity. Little by little they reveal the evolution of an otherwise undocumented everyday.

Professional photographers have recently started talking about the ‘four ‘c’s’ that should always be included in a file’s metadata – credit, contact, copyright ownership and caption. The first three can be dealt with automatically ‘in camera’. Time, skill and effort are required for the forth.

The ubiquity of digital image making and the seemingly universal human desire to capture moments means that the quantity of photographs taken is today is unprecedented. In the 1980s when my friend's photographic odyssey began, humankind captured approximately 25 billion photos a year . Today it is more than a million million

How many will be captioned? Perhaps fewer than 40 years ago – certainly a dramatically smaller proportion. That mattes if you want your pictures to survive your memory of their subjects. Without captions, your exposures quickly become the digital equivalent of dust.

It is possible that technology will eventually solve even this. Software that automatically recognises places and faces in digital files is already being used for surveillance.

Until that arrives in the consumer market, however, captioning is the photographic practice least changed since the era of Daguerre and Fox Talbot. A picture might well be worth 1,000 words, but it often requires a simple sentence to unlock that value. And as well as the benefits for posterity, a fresh moment of reflection on your own work, as you flesh out the metadata, might just prompt beneficial reflection on how you are documenting the world around you.

Cell by date: jail looms for Turkey’s journalists

Eren Keskin is possibly the most striking defendant hauled before Istanbul’s criminal courts today. Dressed in black from head to toe, a quivering beehive of hair towers above her head, and her make up is distinctly rock n’ roll.

She and two other defendants are in court accused of ‘insulting the president’ and could face up to seven-and-a-half years in jail. The charges arise from the day each spent as ‘editor for the day’ of the pro-Kurdish rights newspaper Özgür Gündem. Turkey’s judicial system, however, allows the process to be extended over many years, at the absolute discretion of the prosecutor.

This is expected to be a significant hearing and I am among a handful of international observers who crowd the public gallery along with the defendants’ parents, friends and supporters.

The three judges take their seats and call the court to order. As the defence barristers prepare to make their statements, however, a court official announces: “The lead prosecutor who must be present for this case to proceed, has, in fact, taken a holiday today.” 

The lead judge invites the defendants to make a statement. Keskin strides to the bench, determined and purposeful. “I have been campaigning for human rights in Turkey for more than 30 years,” she says, rage scarcely controlled and finger jabbing up at the judges. “These changes have been hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles for more than three years. You are responsible for nothing less than judicial bullying. I insist that you give us an immediate date for the conclusion of this case”.

It is but one case of many against journalists and free speech campaigners being heard today in the Çağlayan court complex, a bleak, ten storey, judicial factory. Some cases open and adjourn so quickly that international observers miss proceedings. Other courts examine evidential minutiae of extraordinary complexity to rule on such vague charges as ‘insulting state institutions’.

Kadri Gürsel

Kadri Gürsel is among Turkey’s most renowned journalists. He was detained for 11 months in jail in 2016, for his alleged sympathies with Kurdish terrorists – ironically, the same group that kidnapped and held him captive for a month in the 1990s.

He told me that the state’s recent judicial reform programme was a public relations stunt aimed at placating foreign governments. “The judiciary is being used to muzzle the free media. The government has undermined the freedom of the judiciary and is now using that to undermine freedom of expression”. 

Gürsel is one of the authors of a new report by the International Press Institute forensically cataloging the judicial assault faced by Turkey’s media. Its revelations are bleak. Despite the number of imprisoned journalists falling from approximately 150 to 120 over the past year, a raft of new weapons have been created to undermine free speech.

There has been a significant turn over in judges, for example, with new ones appointed by a Constitutional Council wholly controlled by President Erdoğan and party colleagues. Ownership of media groups continues to change, so that formerly respected platforms are now controlled by governing-party sympathisers. And, Turkey’s audio-visual regulator has new powers that could be used to regulate all online content. Scores of newspapers have closed, and hundreds of dissenting Twitter accounts are blocked.

Phillippe Leruth, former president of the International Federation of Journalists

The issues facing journalists in Turkey have long been a focus for international free-speech campaigners. Philippe Leruth, for example, is a former president of the IFJ with long experience of the country. “It is sixteen years since I first came to Turkey to protest about press freedom and they are still criminalising journalism here”, he told a conference in Istanbul marking the conclusion of an EU-funded EJF project. “We need to make the case that decent conditions are as important as legal protections, for free media to flourish”.

Ayşe Bana Tuna

Until a few weeks ago Ayşe Bana Tuna was an editor on Hürriyet, Turkey’s biggest selling daily paper. She was sacked without reason after 20 years employment alongside 44 colleagues. All were members of the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) that had been on the cusp of achieving sufficient membership density to obtain formal recognition. 

Her experience provides some insight to the pressures faced by Turkey’s reporters. “To survive [as journalists on the paper] we had to develop a complicated system of self-censorship,” Tuna told me.”We were not allowed to write critical articles about companies in which the papers multi-industrial holding company had interests, or in which any of the bosses, or their friends, had shares. The safest policy was simply not to write critical articles at all, because you never knew where their interests lay.”

She is but one of scores of journalists with similar stories.

At least the parlous state of press freedom in Turkey is internationally recognised – not least by the EU. A permanent EU delegation is maintained in Turkey (because it is a candidate for membership). It funds projects to aid the civic reform. Alexander Fricke, a section head in that delegation, describes journalism as the “oxygen of democracy”. “So many journalists in jail and at least as many others being judicially harassed is not good for Turkish democracy. It is why EU funds are committed promoting freedom of expression here.” 

Given the backdrop, it is amazing that there is still a ready supply of young people keen to become journalists. Happily, there are, and to help them acquire the skills necessary for the work, TGS has recently opened its own training academy.

Orhan Sener, director of the TGS Academy

Orhan Sener, its director, is determined to nurture a generation of media workers who are the masters of new technology. “Most of the 16 to 25 year olds who come here have never read a paper. We are teaching them to create the kind of stories that can be shared at the touch of a button and consumed on a phone”.

Housed in a smart hew suite of offices, the academy has funding from the EU for at least three years and is one of several factors that has given the young leadership of the TGS a welcome boost. Most significantly, they have nearly doubled the number of collective agreements that they have with employers over the past three years. 

Mustafa Kuleli, General Secretary of the TGS

Mustafa Kuleli, TGS’ general secretary sees this as part of a broader renewal of the media in Turkey. “The media crisis here is much deeper than Erdoğan’s assault on free speech. Most outlets make no money. The owners’ journalistic acquiescence means that the papers are poor and circulations low. Owners are compensated with corruptly-awarded government contracts. We need journalists who not only know how to find stories, but can lead a renaissance of the entire media industry”.

Kuleli is an optimist. He identifies as one of the generation who came age during the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013-14. Like Paris’ 1968 protestors, he says, the battle around which they coalesced might not have concluded victoriously, but in the coming decades, it will be their ideas that prevail.

Marta Barcinilla Escaño, vice president of the European Federation of Journalists

Optimism is always attractive, but it is not a magic wand. Today’s repression is all too real for many of Turkey’s writers, editors and photographers. The most important step that foreign journalists can take to help their colleagues in is to keep up the pressure on their own governments, says Marta Barcinilla Escaño, the vice president of the European Federation of Journalists, who has observed several journalist’s trials in Turkish courts. “Erdoğan responds to pressure from foreign governments, even if his actions to date are cosmetic,” she says. “The challenge is keeping this issue in the minds of our own parliamentarians and government ministers, wherever we live.”

I traveled to Turkey from 27 November 2019 to observe and monitor journalists' trials and to participate in an international conference within the framework of the “Journalism is not a crime”, an EU-funded project implemented by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS).

This article was originally published by the European Federation of Journalists and Journo.com.tr.

All photos © Tim Dawson

Head hunt: how the search for Elvis signals a threat to journalism

Article originally published in the December 2019 editor of NUJ Informed.

Each September, Porthcawl is alive with white jumpsuits, improbable sideburns and gyroscopic hips as 40,000 Elvis impersonators descend on the Welsh resort. “Arrests are very rare, the whole event is like a huge Elvis party,” says Peter Phillips organiser of the 20-year-old annual event. Even Cliff Richard fans enjoy a warm welcome, he adds. 

For the past three years, however, as the “Elvises” have encouraged the jailhouse to rock, South Wales Police (SWP) officers have discreetly filmed revellers and utilised facial-recognition software to sift the resulting feed for ‘undesirables’.

And while combing the tribute acts for terrorists probably risks no more than ridicule, the potential threat to journalism of the unregulated use of such technology is all too real. 

“As soon as it became possible to use phone data to identify individuals, police forces started using them to search for journalists’ sources,” says NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. “The cases of Mark Bulstrode, Tom Newton-Dunn and Sally Murrer are but a few of many instances. Today, facial recognition is almost entirely without legal regulation. I would be amazed if journalists have not already been targeted.” 

Stanistreet is not alone in raising concerns.

Paul Wiles, the government’s Biometrics Commissioner says: “We desperately need fresh legislation that regulates use of these second-generation biometric identification, and those rules need to enshrine journalistic rights to protect sources.”

His counterpart the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Palmer is similarly worried. “The first court case [relating to the use of facial recognition by the SWP] is now subject to appeal. It will ask is whether there is a legal framework to use that technology in the first place. The court has said that it could be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the common law can be quite fluid.” 

Whatever the outcome of the current election, the issue may struggle to gain traction. Against this backdrop, a multi-party campaign calls on UK police forces and private security companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance. Supported by MPs (at the time of writing) David Davis, Diane Abbot, Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas, it is also endorsed by numerous civil liberties groups, academics and lawyers. 

The clamour for regulation has been joined by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. “The absence of a statutory code that speaks to the specific challenges posed by LFR will increase the likelihood of legal failures and undermine public confidence in its use,” she has written. “[My] key recommendation is [for the] government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice on the deployment of live facial recognition.”

Notwithstanding these concerns, SWP’s “facial recognition vans” have become a familiar sight at sporting events, concerts and demonstrations in Cardiff. And the Welsh experience is not unusual.

In Leicestershire similar kit was used to check fans at a heavy metal festival against a Europol database. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police surveilled the crowds on Remembrance Sunday to try to weed out stalkers and people with mental health issues.

In London the private landlords of the development behind King’s Cross station were given access to the Met Police facial recognition database to scan shoppers’ faces. This scheme was abandoned after a public outcry

Similar technology is also thought to be in use in the Irish Republic. The Garda Síochána’s Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021 specifically committed to its use. 

SWP makes a robust defence of the use of automated facial recognition, both in public and it court. Chief Inspector Jason Herbert, Operations Manager for Bridgend says: “Facial recognition software helps detect risk more efficiently than standard CCTV. Officers on the ground can also identify early opportunities to prevent crime and reduce anti-social behaviour. We are very aware of concerns about privacy and we have built checks and balances into our methodology to reassure the public.” 

SWP says that it is searching for individuals on a “watch list” drawn up specifically for each event. At the 2017 Elvisfest, for example, there were 472 names on the list. All were either “suspected of crimes in South Wales, or had outstanding arrest warrants”, says Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis. 

The compiling and sign off for this list is made wherever possible by the most senior officer on the ground at the event (in police jargon, the Silver Commander). According to SWP’s own operational manual, however, there is no systematic process for review or inspection of that list by more senior officers, or anyone else. 

The NUJ will campaign for proper regulation, including safeguards for journalism, of facial recognition technology (as well as other second- generation biometrics such as voice and iris recognition). As soon as a new NUJ all- party Parliamentary Group has convened, this will be on its agenda. Members can raise the absence of regulation with candidates in the general election. 

In the meantime, however, an academic evaluation of SWP’s experience with facial recognition provides some pointers for journalists who wish to avoid their encounters being the subject of CCTV scrutiny and facial recognition. 

The researchers found that the system used by British police forces, NeoFace, manufactured by NEC, had some clear shortcomings. Low light forces the camera’s sensors to use higher ISO settings (increasing their sensitivity), and produces images too grainy for effective analysis. Hats with brims, scarves and sunglasses also reduced the system’s capacity for recognition. 

The efficaciousness of self-adhesive side burns, quiff wigs and rhinestone belts as disguise were not specifically considered by the academics. It is worth noting, however, that in 2019 SWP deployed two facial recognition vans for both days of the Porthcawl Elvisfest, and managed to identify not one person from their watch lists, nor did they make any arrests. Perhaps had the constables concentrated on the music instead of their surveillance screens they could have enjoyed themselves rather more and avoided the very trap warned of by the King himself – suspicious minds. 

Qatar solo: labour reform leveraged from Gulf state’s isolation

Tweets bring little news worth cheering. One last Wednesday from Qatar was an exception, however. Abdullah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani, prime minister of the gulf kingdom, announced a reform of the country’s employment laws. He promised a "full commitment to the fundamental rights relating to labour” and a meaningful minimum wage.

The plight of the thousands of so-called ‘guest workers’ who have toiled, in abominable conditions, to construct Qatar’s World Cup 2022 infrastructure were on my mind. But so was the NUJ’s modest role bringing about this change.

The new laws won’t take effect until next year, but the Qatari’s commitment was enough for the International Labour Organisation to offer three cheers. The reforms will bring to an end the ‘kafala’, or sponsorship system. This gave the employers of many of the 2.3million non-Qatari’s working in the country extraordinary power over their workforce, including the ability to prevent them changing employer or leaving the country.

Credit for the NUJ’s role in this lies squarely on the shoulders of Jim Boumelha, one of our longest-serving National Executive Members and the former president of the International Federation of Journalists. Long ago, he recognised that Al Jazeera’s arrival in London presented a slender opportunity to help engineer change back in Qatar.

First journalists at Al Jazeera’s London studios sought recognition – not easily achieved, but it was a bridgehead. Next Boumelha put to the Gulf broadcaster that it should sign an ‘international framework agreement’ with the IFJ. In this, the Doha-headquartered broadcaster committed to media pluralism, human rights, journalistic professionalism as well as internationally accepted labour relations conventions.

Such agreements – between multinational companies and international trades unions – are a relatively new concept; fewer than 100 exist worldwide, despite there being more than 80,000 international corporations.  This is the first to be concluded with a global media employer.

The decisive moment came, however, when Qatar became the focus of Saudi Arabian anger. Qatar’s borders and ports were blockaded (and continue to be) because of the Kingdom’s alleged ‘support for terrorism’. Among Saudi’s outrageous demands was the immediate closure of Al Jazeera. Qatar needed allies.

Six weeks after the crisis began, Boumelha convened an extraordinary conference with more than 500 participants, in Doha, and under the auspices of The National Human Rights Council (of Qatar). 

Speakers came from the four corners of the globe – the NUJ’s acting general secretary Séamus Dooley and I among them, as well as Mick Hodgkin and Brian Ging from the NUJ chapel at Al Jazeera London. Perhaps the most significant, however, was Younes M'Jahed, the IFJ's senior vice-president (and now president) who called for trades union rights in Qatar and said that, as well as the media, freedom of expression should be applied equally to poets, bloggers and civic society. That his contribution was in Arabic gave his contribution a particular resonance with our hosts.

Of course journalists were not the only ones putting pressure on the Qataris. The International Trades Union Congress, for example, has long made the country a focus and had previously submitted a complaint about its legal code to the ILO.

My hope now is that reform in Qatar ripples around the Gulf states. What a good thing it would be if this example creates pressure for other states to adopt labour laws owing more to the modern age than the middle ages. Such a clear case of effective international solidarity should also inspire trades unionists at home. However insular domestic politics might seem, focussing on issues beyond our shores can, on occasion, contribute to real change.

Photo: Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters and studios © Tim Dawson

Global transmission: London booms as world tv hub

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 edition of NUJ Informed

Walking into the Chinese state broadcaster’s gleaming studios, Mick Hodgkin passes a galaxy of other media outlets. The offices of Yanga! (serving African markets), Aparat Media (TV content producer), Arab News, and Iran International are all close by.

Elsewhere on Chiswick Park’s sparkling new, university-style campus are the Discovery Network, Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures. Settling down to continue work preparing for China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) planned London launch, programme editor Mick Hodgkin is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of media staff now working in this west London enclave.

It is but one of the international TV hubs that have made the English capital possibly the world’s most significant global broadcasting centre. “Britain has always had a strong international broadcast sector,” says Simon Spanswick, chief executive of the UK-based Association of International Broadcasters.

“The rise of streamed broadcast content and a more general migration from radio to TV, allied with the falling entry costs to produce television, have brought a host of new entrants to the sector in the pastfew years.” He cites some of the factors drawing broadcasters to the UK (he believes that nearly 1,500 are now based here): Heathrow; a flexible and highly-skilled broadcast workforce; multitudinous established international communities; and the desirability of London life.

Most significant, however, according to Simon Spanswick, is Ofcom. “It is widely perceived to be the strongest and most transparent regulator whose work, unlike some regulators elsewhere in Europe, is not politicised.”

The UK represents 21 per cent of the European TV market output, according to a 2018 report by the European Audiovisual Observatory, with 1,203 TV channels of the 3,005 in the EU based in the UK.

Ofcom currently has 893 licences in issue that can be used to broadcast on cable and satellite; for digital terrestrial TV they have issued 135 licences.

Mick Hodgkin’s career trajectory gives some sense of how skills networks are key to this burgeoning sector. “I started at Reuters TV, spent nine years at Chanel Four News, and spent several years atAl Jazeera.”

Estimates of how many journalists CGTN is planning to hire vary from 150 to 350. There is no question, however, that state-funded broadcasters, such as Al Jazeera, Press TV and Al Araby, provide the bulk of the new employment. They are not alone, however. They have been joined by scores of much smaller operators, many of them dissidents, who choose to make programmes in London for broadcast to audiences elsewhere in the world.

Jobs created by this sector are welcome, they also provide an NUJ organising opportunity. Recognition at Al Jazeera’s London centre in 2013 was followed in 2018 by a 6 per cent pay increase and
3 per cent the following year. Constructive talks about NUJ recognition at Al Araby, where about 400 people (not all journalists) are thought to work, are in progress.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, is optimistic about opportunities in this burgeoning sector: “It is London’s talent pool that is drawing broadcasters here. We have shown what a difference NUJ organisation can make to those staffing these stations, so I am confident that, in time, we will have a string of recognition agreements in this area.

“We will also be ensuring that NUJ members don’t find themselves pressured to let standards slip.”

Her concerns are well founded – broadcasters controlled by repressive regimes can be unedifying. A string of Ofcom judgements shows how standards can slip.

Press TV’s licence was revoked in 2012 after it broadcast an interview with a Chanel 4 journalist conducted “under duress”. RT, the Russian-government-controlled channel, has been the subject of several regulatory investigations for lack of impartiality and several stations have been sanctioned for broadcasting jihadi content.

Troubling as these are, this regulatory attention is assurance that there is some check on standards and, for those who have experienced the decline of much of the UK’s traditional media, it is comforting to think that at least one part of our industry is enjoying a boom.

The illustration is The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)