RARELY does the Pope receive, rather than confer, an award inside the Vatican. That is just what happened on 18 May, however, when Pope Francis was presented with Honoury Membership (card no. 5313) of the Associazione della Stampa Estera Italia: Italy’s Foreign Press Association. The distinction, which was conferred during a special meeting between the Pope and Italy’s foreign correspondents, recognised his activism for press freedom globally. I think that Pope Francis’s stand is a model of church-press relations that others should imitate.
Last year was“the deadliest year on record for journalists”, the monitoring body Reporters without Borders says. UNESCO figures record 99 journalists killed, 348 imprisoned, and 60 taken hostage. No longer are journalists at risk only when covering war zones or living under repressive regimes: since 2015, murders of investigative journalists working on corruption stories in EU countries have averaged one per year. Worse, convictions, or even attempted prosecutions, are mysteriously rare, as the recent cases of Ján Kuciak, in Slovakia, and Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Malta, have shown.
The situation in Europe coheres with a global pattern. UNESCO’s 2017-18 report World Trends in Freedom of Expression stated that, globally, nine out of ten crimes against reporters went unpunished. Specialists talk of a growing “issue of impunity”.
Other threats to media operation are less violent but equally dangerous for true freedom of expression. While allegations of “fake news” themselves make headlines, commentators usually overlook what enables the spread of disinformation: worrying shifts in media ownership structure and economic conditions.
Authoritarian politicians do not always need to kill journalists to kill the news. Increasingly, they don’t even need legally to proscribe unco-operative outlets. Instead, takeovers of independent news bodies via intermediary oligarchs will usually achieve the desired outcome. Quiet hobbling, through punitive taxation and commercial threats to advertisers, is similarly effective. These techniques were pioneered in Russia before they entered the EU through Hungary. They are now being implemented in Poland and the West Balkan countries.
FACED with these developments, Pope Francis has been vocal in supporting journalists. On UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day (3 May), both his personal Twitter account and the Vatican’s official one pushed the day’s authorised hashtag: #DefendPressFreedom. During his May meeting with Italy’s foreign correspondents, he said: “The Church is on your side. . . Yours is an indispensable role.”
These words were not generic platitudes: a month later, the Pope publicly put his support behind two Reuters journalists, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, who are currently detained in Myanmar. In an interview with their employing organisation in June, his words were sharp: “States that have something they don’t want to be seen always stop the media. . . We must fight for freedom of the press. We must fight.”
Pope Francis’s advocacy for endangered reporters is one that it would be good to see enter the C of E’s life blood. Several Lords Spiritual list “Media” as an interest on their official parliamentary web pages. Hansard, and published committee papers, however, show that parliamentary interventions on media issues by serving bishops since 2016 have focused overwhelmingly on promoting tighter domestic regulation.
During this period, the deaths in Europe of, among others, Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria, Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and Lyra McKee in Derry (News, 26 April) have elicited no statement from the Bishops’ Bench. Time has been found, however, for airing episcopal views on heritage railway lines and on bee-keeping.
The Church of England has a poor media profile today, owing to its position on LGBT+ issues and the revelations of child sexual abuse, and its concealment, that are emerging from IICSA. Speaking out for journalists would generate much needed good will. There could also be benefits more important than reputation.
IT IS often said that secularised Western media and governments ignore the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. Bishops have raised the matter in Parliament 11 times in six months —and recently secured a formal government promise of improvements in relevant Foreign Office practice (News, 26 July). If church leaders want press support in holding UK authorities to account for those pledges in future, it might help if bishops showed that they were on the side of journalists being persecuted by hostile foreign governments.
The Church has a good foundation to build on here. In St Bride’s, Fleet Street, in London, a constant memorial honours reporters killed on duty. Atop the “Journalists’ altar”, a candle burns continually while photographs of recently deceased journalists are regularly refreshed around it.
In 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached at St Bride’s annual memorial service for fallen journalists (News, 7 November 2014). The challenge is to move that spirit of concern for journalists’ safety along the Strand from St Bride’s to the Palace of Westminster.
The Revd. Alexander Faludy is an Anglican Priest presently pursuing studies in law. He is an accredited journalist-member of the Hungarian International Press Association.