S02E23: Rebecca Vincent, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This is our second episode from our new series of DE&I interviews. Our aim with these series is to chat with inspirational guests who can encourage us all to look at the industries we work in (media, comms and tech) from different perspectives.

Our guest for this episode is Rebecca Vincent, an American human rights activist and currently Director of International Campaigns and UK Bureau Director for our pro bono client Reporters Without Borders. Based in Paris, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is an independent NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF). Its foreign sections, its bureaus in ten cities, including Brussels, Washington, Berlin, Tunis, Rio de Janeiro, and Stockholm, and its network of correspondents in 130 countries give RSF the ability to mobilise support, challenge governments and wield influence both on the ground and in the ministries and precincts where media and Internet standards and legislation are drafted.

You should listen to Rebecca Vincent if you want to learn about the work Reporters Without Borders is doing across the world, their World Press Freedom index, the Julian Assange case, and how the state of press freedom stands today. In the interview hosted by Tyto’s CEO, Brendon Craigie, she explains why there is a worrying trend of violence against journalists in countries that are meant to be at peace, such as the UK, The Netherlands, Greece, Malta, and more. Countries seen as standard setters in terms of freedom of the press should be doing better, according to Vincent.

You can watch the recording on our YouTube channel here.


Brendon: [00:00:00Hello everyone and thank you for listening to a new episode of the Without Borders podcast. You might well be a previous listener and might’ve kind of joined some of our unicorn leader series. If you haven’t, I’d strongly recommend them. They’re a great way of just kind of understanding some of the key issues, pain points, and challenges that startups face and how unicorn leaders go about addressing them. Today’s podcast is the second in the series of conversations with inspirational speakers from the worlds of technology, communications, media, which kind of take us out of our every day and challenge us to look at our industries in a slightly different, from a slightly different perspective. You can listen to our podcasts in your preferred podcast app, or watch the recording in our Tyto PR YouTube channel. My name is Brendon Craigie, I’m going to be the host of today’s show, and I’m delighted to be talking with Rebecca Vincent, who is the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca: [00:01:04Hi Brendon, thanks so much for having me.

Brendon: [00:01:06Great to have you on the show. Now, as a PR agency, we’re obviously dealing with and talking with the media on a daily basis and kind of, we have a very symbiotic relationship with the media. We really need their help to kind of help make our clients’ success. And likewise, we like to think that we help journalists do their jobs, but largely, I think in the worlds of technology, it’s a pretty safe space. You know, the kind of work that we do with journalists is, you know, we rarely encounter any kind of major challenges, but Reporters Without Borders is a global organization that campaigns for press freedoms and supports journalists who are threatened or imprisoned around the world. And Rebecca, you are the director of international campaigns, which means that you’re closely involved with the work that they do. And it isn’t the same everywhere is it, in terms of the kind of, the types of challenges that journalists encounter. And I don’t know whether maybe we could start there and you could tell us a little bit about the kind of work that Reporters Without Borders does.

Rebecca: [00:02:07Sure, well, we work to defend press freedom, whatever that might mean around the world. And so sometimes there are country-specific situations and some places, of course, are worse than others in some senses. But one thing that has really struck us in our work in recent years is some of the global trends and really a shift towards the types of threats that journalists face and a conclusion there that journalists aren’t safe anywhere. And so we can get into that a bit, but it’s no longer just the places that we think of as being far away and sort of dangerous for journalists, but the specific sorts of threats that we see can happen to journalists anywhere, particularly those who are working on risky topics. So we do, you know, a full range of activity. So I’m involved in the campaigning side, so the big sort of in your face public mobilization campaigns. It might have specific goals targeting certain international institutions or specific governments, or simply trying to inform and mobilize the public on some of our key global concerns. We do behind the scenes advocacy sometimes. That might be more quiet conversations that we have with states or with policymakers on certain issues that you might not get as far with doing as sort of big shouty campaigns. So sometimes we do direct engagement with states in that way. We do really concrete forms of assistance to journalists in some ways too, everything from, you know, our Paris headquarters runs it, an insurance scheme for freelancers, or they lend out flak jackets and bulletproof helmets to journalists that might be going off to cover war. We provide trainings and things like digital security, physical security, and a whole range of activities in between. So anything sort of to get at promoting and supporting independent journalism and pluralism of media and press freedom. That’s sort of what we do. And we have our headquarters in Paris, I think 13 country offices, including the London bureau, which I also run in addition to being responsible for global campaigns. We also have a network of correspondence in more than 130 countries. So in that sense, we have eyes and ears on the ground in most places. And they really help us to stay on top of the key concerns in every country we’ve, we produce alerts every day on things that are happening around the world. And by that metric, we are the largest press freedom organization in the world if you look at our on the ground presence in more than 130 countries.

Brendon: [00:04:24Fantastic, and we’re obviously big believers in what you do ’cause we obviously do work with you and with the Reporters Without Borders through the Tyto Foundation. Just going back to that kind of, you kind of touched on it there in terms of it’s almost seems like there are kind of like more traditional threats to the people who associate with kind of press freedom and freedom of the press and then kind of more modern threats that are kind of emerging that you’re kind of confronting today, which maybe, you know, are not, are not kind of maybe as associated with kind of dictatorships and so on, you know. Could you talk through maybe kind of sort of like the more traditional threats that you kind of have to deal with, but then kind of some of the more modern challenges that you’re seeing?

Rebecca: [00:05:11Certainly. So one of our most useful global tools is maybe a good place to start that, that’s the World Press Freedom Index. So we’ve put this out for nearly 20 years. In fact, 2022 will be, I actually, I’ve met, let me, let me say that bit over, that’s okay. We’ve put this out for I believe 25 years now, we have a big anniversary coming up in 2022. This is an index that measures the press freedom records of 180 countries on a range of indicators. So some countries might perform better in certain areas than others. It measures everything from sort of violence against journalists to the legal environments, the economic climate, the whole range of really the climate in each country, not just the issues that are directly controlled by states either, but climatic issues. And one thing at a glance that you can see is how countries perform relatively to each other. And so countries are always very aware of this. In fact, almost nobody is happy with their score on this index. Even the countries in the top 10 are sort of always jostling for those spots. But what you can’t see at a glance is actually that the whole world is getting worse. And so the global scoring has been, has been on a decline really since 2016. It continues that downward trajectory. And when you look at specific regions and how they perform, even Europe, which has long been the region that respects press freedom the most, Europe has been slipping. The whole world is slipping. And even our standard setters we’re seeing deteriorate in certain regards. That’s really disturbing when you think about the precedent that that sets for others, who may have already been engaged in more immediately alarming behaviors. When they’re looking at countries like the US, the UK, you know, which should be doing better than they are in many regards, that’s really concerning that it is getting worse everywhere. We look at violence against journalists in particular. One trend I want to point out is journalists are very often killed with impunity over the past decade, more than 1,000 journalists have been killed in connection with their work. That’s either in the field while doing their work or targeted intentionally in connection with their journalism. The trend we’ve seen over the past couple of years has shifted away from conflict zones. And now we’re seeing a really disturbing trend of more journalists being killed in countries that are meant to be at peace than countries that are at war. These are journalists that are very often deliberately targeted, very often investigative journalists covering things like corruption and organized crime. And we’ve seen some really shocking examples of cases, even in Europe. Again, that’s the region where we should expect press freedom to be most protected, but we’ve seen journalists killed in Malta, in Slovakia, in the Netherlands, in Greece, in the UK in fact, we had the case of Lyra McKee killed in Northern Ireland two years ago. We still haven’t seen justice for Lyra either. So these cases are not, you know, each one has its own sort of factors there. So Lyra’s case is very different, for example, from Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, but when this is even happening in countries that we’ve traditionally thought of as being safe, that’s really concerning.

Brendon: [00:08:07That is really concerning and, you know, really shocking. And going back to the kind of the UK and the US where people would probably think of, you know, journalists being relatively free, what are some of the kinds of challenges that journalists are increasingly facing in, say, those kinds of countries like the UK and the US?

Rebecca: [00:08:28Sure, I’ll start with the UK since I normally, when I’m not traveling, sit in the London bureau, we are 32nd out of 180 countries. And at times, we’ve been worse than that. We should be doing better. The UK, in some regards, is still looked at as being a standard setter. For example, with some of the Commonwealth countries and the Foreign Office, for several years now, has committed itself to championing global media freedom. And we do welcome that when states commit themselves to these things. So we never say that because you have issues at home, you shouldn’t be raising these issues abroad, but we do think that states should also be holding themselves to the same standards. So I work on that every day with regard to the UK. We have a number of issues. We have serious concerns about safety of journalists in Northern Ireland. So I mentioned Lyra McKee’s case, but there are very active threats to many journalists, specifically those that are covering paramilitary activities and organized crime. And specifically, against women journalists on those beats. And so we work with people like Patricia Devlin, who has faced really horrific threats, not only to herself, but to her family. These things are very actively happening in Northern Ireland. And it does not get enough attention in Westminster for sure, even though this is part of the UK. I think some London-based journalists would be really shocked to hear the conditions that some of their counterparts in Belfast and Derry and other parts of Northern Ireland are facing, having to have our, you know, alarm systems on their home and sometimes armored cars and just getting used to being notified frequently by police that there are threats against them. This is really shocking that it’s happening in the UK. We have threats to freedom of information, severe restrictions. There’s been some excellent reporting by openDemocracy recently about the lack of transparency with freedom of information and a real regression under this administration in particular. Reports of this alleged clearing house, that was under the purview of Michael Gove, that filters out what requests even get passed on to other government bodies. Anecdotally, many investigative journalists that we know are just constantly fighting battles with the ICO. In fact, having to go to the information commissioner directly to get any hope of obtaining even routine information in some instances. And then one case in particular that I’d like to highlight is currently a UK issue, but it’s one of our global priorities and it impacts the US press freedom climate as well. That’s the case of WikiLeaks publisher, Julian Assange. So Julian Assange is currently being held at Belmarsh Prison, a high security facility where he’s surrounded by violent criminals. Regardless of what one thinks about Julian Assange, he is by no means a violent person. And he suffers severe mental health issues as well, which are exacerbated in prolonged detention. He’s been there for the past 2 1/2 years after a period of seven years of arbitrary detention at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he sought refuge out of fear of being extradited to the US. The fear, which proved to be very relevant because we saw in April, 2019, a situation, he was forced out of the Ecuadorian Embassy, arrested by the UK, sentenced to a disproportionate 50 weeks in prison for breaking bail, because they considered that when he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, that was breaking the terms of his bail. He long since has finished that 50 weeks, though. And he’s currently being held only because the US is pursuing an extradition case against him. So at present, we are waiting for the high court’s decision in the appeals case. The First Instance Court, in January, found that he should not be extradited, but only on mental health grounds. We criticized the substance of that ruling because on the issues that are concerning the case, the implications for journalism and press freedom, the court almost completely found in favor of the prosecution’s arguments, the prosecution representing the US government, but they ruled that there would be a significant threat to his wellbeing and to his life. And so therefore, he shouldn’t be extradited. So we do share those concerns, but we feel that the decision should have been stronger. Now, the high court is considering the US appeal in that regard. The US has tried to provide the UK with assurances about his treatment, which are unreliable at best. We should learn the outcome of that in the next few weeks, possibly before Christmas, possibly in the new year. We’re just waiting for information, but if he is extradited to the US, he would be the first publisher prosecuted under the Espionage Act, which lacks a public interest defense. And the precedent that that could set cannot be overstated. The door would be left open for any publisher, any journalist, any source to be pursued in the same way. Bringing it back to the UK, our own corresponding legislation, the Official Secrets Act, also lacks a public interest defense. And one of the things on my radar in the UK is an alarming set of proposals by The Home Office for reforms to the Official Secrets Act that not only would not address that need for a public interest defense, The Home Office has concluded, despite the law commission’s own recommendation that a public interest defense be introduced, The Home Office is proposing a series of changes that would see journalists very easily labeled as spies and possibly jailed for up to 14 years for simply engaging in journalistic activity. For example, even receiving leaked information could result in a prison sentence. So that’s happening in the UK. There’s other trends as well in the US, which is now 44th out of 180 countries on our index. These are countries that should be doing better. We work just as hard to hold our own democracies to account, as we do the worst offenders placed at the very bottom of our World Press Freedom Index.

Brendon: [00:13:48Those are, yeah, worrying trends. We’ll be watching those cases closely. One area, I guess, we’ve really seen kind of, you know, making the lives of journalists more challenging is kind of the impact of social media. What impact is social media having on journalists?

Rebecca: [00:14:06Well, it’s changed the face of journalism, the nature of journalism. And we work not only on cases of professional journalists, but we work on cases of citizen journalists too. So all of our metrics, including our barometer of press freedom violations that is updated every day on our website that shows imprisonments and killings of journalists by country around the world, we include numbers of citizen journalists as well. So some journalists in that measure are, they’re using social media purely for their work, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, blogs. Now we have this trend in Substack, I suppose that might fall into that as well. You know, we very much defend the rights of citizens journalists to be able to do their jobs and in countries where the climate is particularly repressive, some of the most impactful reporting is coming from citizen journalists and some citizen journalists are being targeted through violence as well. For example, in Mexico, which has long been the most deadly country not at war for journalists. We see journalists sometimes targeted simply for posting information on Facebook that, you know, particularly that pertains to organized crime or the drug cartels. We are also seeing an increase in online abuse, harassment, and threats of journalists, particularly of women. It can make, it can make it feel unsafe to sort of, to wade into the public discourse. The platforms are not doing enough. Some of our global advocacy and some of our country-specific advocacy is focusing on trying to establish better responsibility of the platforms to respond and to prevent some of these issues. It can be really unpleasant and sometimes they’re not doing enough to take reports of threats seriously. We’ve also noted an increased blurring of the line between online violence, so to speak, and real life violence. And very often, in some of the most horrific cases that we work on, you see a pattern of online abuse, harassment, and threats building up before physical violence then takes place. And so I think we need to do better internationally at responding to this at an earlier stage and preventing actual physical violence from occurring. But it’s sort of the, I guess our conclusion is that it’s not just the online space. Everything is integrated and it’s part and parcel of journalism, it’s not going away. And I think the international community and policymakers in particular need to do better at adapting to the reality of our current climate and getting on top of these trends instead of just waiting until more journalists are needlessly attacked, or, you know, sometimes it’s not as dramatic of a result that we can see, like a violent attack. Sometimes the impact is self-censorship, which is actually one of the biggest challenges to free expression internationally.

Brendon: [00:16:39] I mean, I kind of, you see so many of these cases where individual citizen journalists, like you say, or journalists are, you know, suffer just incredibly, you know, vile abuse on social media. And like you say, it kind of, it must be terrifying to be on the receiving end of that. How do you, I mean, with your kind of desire to kind of protect press freedom, how do you kind of protect against people kind of seeking to opportunistically use, you know, to kind of like silence people that have legitimate views that aren’t abusive, but how, you know, like, but that people who take offense at different people’s opinions, do you see what I mean? So a certain, you know, like there’s obviously people have different perspectives on different issues. They don’t have to be abusive opinions, but sometimes, people can opportunistically use that to try and silence people. How do you, how do you navigate that? ‘Cause that’s, it must be a really complicated area.

Rebecca: [00:17:46It’s extremely complicated. And I think the so-called culture, whereas in the UK at the moment is a good example of that. This sort of, you hear some in government sort of railing, they say for free speech and kind of, I dunno, some of the things that come out of it, this is broader I think than just our press freedom focus on RSF. This is a broader, free expression issue, but these complaints about cancel culture, but then being met with cancel culture, right? It’s extremely problematic. A very recent development that I’m disturbed by is these media reports that, that the government is no longer going to invite government critics to address private internal government functions. So who is to determine who is a government critic? Groups like ours, I mean, civil society groups are inherently in a critical position because our job is to play watchdog to any government, not just in the UK and not just to one party. I mean, whoever is in power in whichever country context we’re working in, our position is inherently critical. I, in the past, have been into brief the Foreign Office, DCMS, and other bodies. Are people like me going to be given the access now? And then what line have they drawn? Because it now will look like somebody is taking sides. If they accept this invitation, when this public announcement has been made that government critics will not be welcome, that’s really concerning to hear that those who should be exposed to the widest range of views are now proactively taking a decision to, in a way, bury their heads in the sand or put blinders on and just hear what they want to hear. I don’t understand, you know, just, even as a citizen, how that is supposed to fix this cancel culture that supposedly exists. You know, I mentioned some of the issues that are directly impacting journalism in the UK, but it is part of a broader sort of worrying move on the free expression front. We’re seeing other things like moves to restrict academic freedom of expression, moves to silence critical protest or any protest really. It looks like in the months ahead, many aspects of democratic life that we’ve viewed as being normal and that are certainly considered normal in other countries that we view as being democratic, everything seems to be under attack at the moment. I think there are some really worrying trends here, that a very slippery slope is being created that I think if questions are not asked now, if there’s not sort of brakes put on this now, we might find ourselves in a very different position as a country in the very near future. And it will be at our own detriment. It’s worth mentioning that the impact is always on the public in these things. So whether it’s these broader issues that, you know, some affect students, some affect activists, we look at the issues that impact journalists. When we are taking up these issues that impact the media and journalists in particular, the ultimate impact is always on all of us, because it’s about the information that the public receives. And so the impact of all of this is always that we receive less information about stories that are in our interest, and it makes us less able as the public to hold our own government to account. So that’s, I think, a bit of storytelling that we seek to always improve on. And me as a campaigner, I’m always aware of that. Are we telling this in an effective way to where the public cares, to where it’s not just about journalists and some people have a very low opinion of journalists for various reasons, some of which are fueled on by public officials, I have to say, but you know, you see trends like scum media trending online. So some people might have decided for whatever reason, they don’t like the media, they don’t like journalists, but it’s about all of us. And so I think that’s a challenge as a press freedom organization is making that argument, making people care and push back a bit because as long as the public is silent on these issues, this government and other governments engaged in similar behavior will keep pushing.

Brendon: [00:21:23And that’s a very good point, I think, for us to bring this conversation so close, because we could talk all, for hours about some of these things ’cause they’re just so important. How, if people would like to get involved in RSF, how would, how should they do that? Where do they find you and, you know, how can they get involved?

Rebecca: [00:21:46So globally, we have RSF members, anybody can log on, any journalist can log on and become a member of RSF internationally. We have a bureau in the UK. We don’t run our own membership scheme in the UK, but if anybody reaches out to us, we can certainly add you to our mailing list. So you’ll get information about specific events and things that we’re doing in London. And of course, we’re a nonprofit. So donations are always very much needed and welcomed. You can go to the main RSF website and donate in a range of currencies. Any funds that are donated in GBP come directly to the UK bureau and not just for our UK work. I should mention our global campaigns team is based in London. So funding to the UK bureau supports our domestic work and some of our priority international campaigns. For those that might be in Europe as well, in France, we always sell our press freedom photo books. There are three that come out a year. The one that’s currently on the newsstands is focused on Asterix, which just makes a really good Christmas present actually. So those are nine euro 90, and actually they’re a huge fundraiser for RSF. So please keep an eye out for that or reach out, follow us on social media, get involved. Sometimes we do, you know, back to London, sometimes we do little protests outside embassies and things like that. And we need manpower too. So I should say woman power as well. So please reach out in any way and we are grateful for support.

Brendon: [00:23:04Brilliant, thank you, Rebecca. So that’s it for this episode of the Tyto Without Borders podcast. And it’s been really fantastic having Rebecca kind of lift the lid on some of the challenges that journalists are facing around the world. And if you’d like to find out more about Rebecca’s work and the work of Reporters Without Borders, you can visit their website, which is www.rsf.org. We’d love to hear your comments, your, any feedback you have on the podcast, and any recommendations other guests we should have on the show. If you liked the episode, please give us a positive rating and review on the podcast and you can listen to more Tyto podcasts on our channel. Thank you very much and we’ll be back again soon.

Rebecca: [00:23:49Thank you. 

Without Borders PR Podcast by Tyto

Tyto brings you Without Borders, a regular dose of inspiration for passionate communicators, courageous creatives and entrepreneurial business brains. Expect candid chats with the wisest old hands, bleeding edge innovators and left field thinkers and doers.