What makes a free media?

“Journalists and journalism are under attack — globally, more than ever,” International Press Institute chair Markus Spillman told the organisation’s 68th congress yesterday.

That’s hard to argue with. The International Federation of Journalists reported a rise in the number of journalists killed while working last year. Governments like Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s in Turkey have become notorious for the number of media workers they imprison.

Jihadist armies like those of Isis or al-Nusra fighting in Syria have been responsible for the kidnap and even beheading of media workers, emphatically rejecting Geneva Convention protocols which specify that journalists operating in warzones are entitled to “all rights and protections” that armies are supposed to grant to civilians in wartime.

Even countries which officially adhere to those protocols have long ignored them in practice. At least two clearly identified Palestinian journalists were killed and scores injured by Israeli Defence Force snipers while covering the Great Return March protests along the Gaza-Israel border last year. Israeli military chiefs’ denials that the media workers were consciously targeted ring hollow.

Still, they fall short of the explicit justification of killing media workers given by Nato when it bombed the Belgrade HQ of Radio and Television of Serbia in 1999. Sixteen members of staff lost their lives. Nato commanders said that the TV station “was making an important contribution to the propaganda war” being waged by the Yugoslav government.

Whatever one made of that claim, it was a death knell for the principle that journalists are civilians and not military targets. Multiple Western media organisations have engaged in “propaganda wars” against targets from Iraq in 2003 through Libya in 2010 to Venezuela now, or against benefit claimants or immigrants, or against the leader of the Labour Party.

Any suggestion that this might justify attacking workers at such organisations would rightly horrify us, but we must recognise that this is exactly what our own government and that of the United States claimed after that massacre of civilians 20 years ago.

For too many media outlets in the West attacks on press freedom are something that only our enemies do. This will not wash. Alongside the increasing likelihood of journalists being targeted and killed in conflict zones Western governments are also doing more to clamp down on awkward coverage.

Three French journalists face potential jail terms of up to five years and hefty €75,000 (£67,000) fines if their publication of military reports proving French complicity in Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen is deemed an “attack on national defence secrets” (by contrast former France Telecom chiefs currently on trial can only be fined €15,000 and jailed for a year if found guilty of creating a systematic bullying culture at the firm that caused 35 suicides).

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, faces extradition and jail in the US for simply “whistle-blowing into illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians and corruption on a grand scale,” in the words of shadow home secretary Diane Abbott — an accurate description of the situation dismissed by her Tory counterpart Sajid Javid as “support for those who intend to do us harm.” Once again, free speech is not accorded to official enemies.

At yesterday’s IPI conference the BBC’s David Jordan lamented “anti-press rhetoric” and that “facts are so often a plaything of the powerful, manipulated and corrupted to fit the agendas of those who seek to suppress the truth.” That is true. It is a shame that “the powerful” undoubtedly includes many of the institutions represented at the conference itself.

The main threat to a critical and independent media in this country does not emanate from Kremlin “bots” or social media keyboard warriors but from the ownership and control of the media by a privileged few, and by the increasing willingness of government to punish dissenting voices.

Untitled art work by P R Treglown