Media: When the pen is the key to the gaol door

Sometimes the last thing a campaigning journalist needs is worldwide exposure. Especially when it can land them, or those they are trying to help, in jail (or worse).
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The Independent Culture
As the nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan stepped off the plane from Saudi Arabia into the waiting arms of the press last month, the warmth of the greeting may have been due to more than just money.

Ever since their indictment for murder, their photographs had never been long absent from our television screens or the pages of newspapers increasingly prepared to take their side. Their UK passports had always marked them out as different from other prisoners in Saudi Arabia, but the level of public exposure made it impossible for either British business interests or the government to ignore them. As they stood there on the tarmac, blinking at the ladies and gentlemen of the press, the two British nurses may just have seen in them their saviours.

They left behind them hundreds of other foreign prisoners, many themselves the victims of unfair trials, some facing the death penalty, none able to benefit from the media exposure that Parry and McLauchlan had enjoyed. In 1997 at least 125 people, mostly foreigners from Africa and Asia, were executed in Saudi Arabia.

Although it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the cause of political actions, public exposure is clearly a key factor in the fate of many famous dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan in China, both of whom were released from prison in the last six months. Wei said on his release: "When I was in prison, my treatment would vary from good to bad at different times. Pressure exerted by the international community and various governments played an important role."

That journalism has the power to stop human rights abuses, and maybe even save lives, is the unspoken assumption behind the Amnesty International Press Awards, taking place this Thursday at the Park Lane Hotel in London. Amnesty International itself started with a newspaper article, back in 1961, and the hundreds of thousands of letters sent by Amnesty members since to seek the release of prisoners of conscience bear testimony to the belief that writing can save lives.

But to suggest an unquestioning faith in the virtue of publishing information would be wrong. For one thing, the dissemination of information in countries round the world is rarely controlled by human rights journalists. The irony of relying on the media to publicise their plight would not be lost on the Tiananmen Square dissidents, many of whom were captured after "Wanted" pictures, taken from surveillance cameras mounted in the square, were broadcast on Chinese television.

Journalism can also place lives at risk, not least those of the reporters themselves. British journalists killed abroad include Farzad Bazoft in Iraq and David Blundy in El Salvador. In Ethiopia, more than 200 editors and reporters from the independent press have been arrested since 1993, nearly all of them for publishing articles critical of the government. For such journalists, writing is not a job, nor even just a passion: it becomes a life choice.

Salima Ghezali is 40. Editor of La Nation in Algeria, she was the only female editor of a national newspaper throughout the Middle East - until, that is, the Algerian authorities closed it down just over a year ago. Over 70 journalists have been murdered in Algeria, but although she can now only publish abroad and on the Internet, Salima goes on writing, arguing for human rights and a negotiated end to the conflict. When I met her in April, her casual bravery was daunting. "I hear from a friend that someone has told someone they know that I talk too much and will be found in a ditch with my throat cut. They may kill me, but they can't kill everyone. "

This year at the Amnesty International Press Awards, a new award for human rights journalism under threat will be made to a journalist like Salima Ghezali who has made that personal calculation that their work is worth the risk. And the ferocity with which such journalists are suppressed in countries like Algeria is perhaps the best indicator of all that journalism has the power to initiate change.

The media's traditional impact has also received a formidable technological boost in recent years. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it is the satellite which has transformed reportage in the last decade. Television pictures of the immediate aftermath of the mortar explosion in a Sarajevo market-place enabled the shock waves to be felt across the world. As viewers reacted in horror, their response helped galvanise the reaction of the international community.

Reportage, of course, no matter how immediate, will in one tragic sense always be too late. Try as they will, journalists cannot control how their work is received or what happens once it is published, and the primary function of journalism in situations of repression or conflict will always be confined to recording human rights abuse rather than preventing it. But that role should not be undervalued.

The survivors of war crimes or human rights violations repeatedly beg for their stories to be told to the outside world. The craving for justice can fill the rest of their lives. And the experience of Amnesty International, from El Salvador to Bosnia to Rwanda, is that the publication of evidence is often what first ruptures the culture of impunity which allows systematic violations of human rights to occur.

Last year, angered by the fact that men indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity were still circulating freely in the former Yugoslavia, human rights activists posted a log of their whereabouts on the Internet. The movements of 66 fugitives, supposedly in hiding, were tracked, partly "to mock and embarrass" those who pretended not to know where they were. By last week the number of indictees brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague had risen to 28.

Mark Lattimer is the Communications Director at Amnesty International UK. The Amnesty International UK Press Awards take place on Thursday evening at the Park Lane Hotel, London