A free media is fundamental to a fair and open democracy
Journalists working in Derry are facing constant danger. In the worst incident, Lyra McKee was killed by paramilitaries while observing a riot in Creggan.
Other journalists have been murdered specifically as a result of their work. In 2001, Martin O’Hagan was assassinated in Lurgan because of his disclosure of drug-related crimes by paramilitaries. In 1996, Veronica Guerin was shot dead in Dublin after writing about drug crime.
A recent meeting of the Derry and North West branch of the National Union of Journalists heard from Sunday World journalist Patricia Devlin of threats made by paramilitaries against her and her family.
Both Patricia, and also Allison Morris (who has just left the Irish News), have been threatened in graffiti on the walls of Belfast, with their names plastered alongside gunsight cross-hairs. BBC reporters were advised by police to leave their Belfast homes in recent weeks after the broadcast of a Panorama documentary on drug crime.
Last year, 65 journalists were murdered across the world just for doing their job. It is unacceptable that media workers are killed because of their work. And it is especially unacceptable that on our own streets, reporters are being threatened with violence or murder.
A free media is fundamental to the operation of open and fair democracy. This requires journalists to speak the truth and report on the criminality that blights some of our communities.
It is for these reasons that I – along with my SDLP colleague Matthew O’Toole - established the Northern Ireland Assembly’s All Party Group on Press Freedom and Media Sustainability. Matthew is chair, I am secretary, former UTV presenter and UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt is vice chair and the treasurer is Sinn Fein’s Emma Rogan. We also have members from the DUP, the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit.
MLAs are united across our political divides in condemning the intimidation of journalists and demanding that threats against them are treated with the utmost seriousness by the police and society.
Matthew had been campaigning for several months already over his concerns about the commercial viability of traditional newspaper groups.
The sustainability of newspapers has been undermined by the rise of social media and further challenged by the Covid pandemic, which has led to consumers shopping less often and therefore buying fewer newspapers. Publishers have been very badly hit, as have the small newsagents that are part of the culture of local communities.
One of the first priorities of the APG has been to meet the chief constable of the PSNI. Journalists have expressed anger that they feel threats against them have not been treated seriously enough. In particular, reporters demand that social media outlets release to the police details of those people who make threats online. I have called on the PSNI to ensure that threats against journalists are pursued rigorously and prosecuted wherever possible.
It is essential that whatever else divides us, politicians from all parties and backgrounds stand together to demand that journalists are able to report honestly and safely. But it is equally important that the factual media has a future in which journalists are employed to tell the truth.
While the police must protect reporters from threats, it is down to all of us as consumers to value independent and honest reporting by buying local papers. If we don’t support them now, they will not endure. We would all be the losers.