International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney urged citizens to speak out when journalists are attacked and when press freedom is threatened.
“In too many places around the world,” she said, “journalists face an awful choice. Toe the government line and be safe, or risk your life to do your job.”
Clooney was speaking at the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards in London, where she presented the Outstanding Investigative Journalist Award to Maria Ressa, CEO of the Filipino news website Rappler.
Ressa was arrested in December 2018 after investigating Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, a move which was widely regarded as an attack on press freedom in the country. She was arrested twice in a five-week period in 2019, and had to post bail eight times in three months.
Clooney, who leads the team of international lawyers representing Ressa and Rappler, characterised her struggle against the Philippine government’s abuse of power and its attempts to silence her as one that “defines our times”.
“We are seeing a greater number of journalists around the world imprisoned and killed since reporting of this began” she said. “Leaders of every continent determined to change the world for the worse by abusing human rights, pitting people against each other and muzzling speech that seeks to expose the truth.
“My hope is we can join forces to create our own cautionary tale, one that signals to the autocrats of this world that when they try to silence journalists, they will hear from all of us because we will defend those who are holding up the ceiling for a free press, independent voices and a rule of law.”
The annual Global Impunity Index, a report by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), places the Philippines near the top of the world’s impunity index, with the highest number of journalist’s murders uninvestigated and unpunished.
“The president of the Philippines has called journalists spies,” Clooney said, “and said that they are not exempt from assassination.”
Maria Ressa refused to be silenced. In her acceptance speech, Ressa addressed the global trend of disinformation coming from autocratic leaders, and stressed the need for non-journalists to join the pushback. “The courage these times demand is impossible for one person alone,” she said. “It’s impossible for one journalist, it’s something we must collectively fight together, journalists can’t do this alone”.
The award is named in honour of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whose death in 2009 put a spotlight on human rights violations in Russia. His client at the time, fund manager Bill Browder, quit his job to help create the Magnitsky Act, which holds government officials to account in at least six countries around the world.
Murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was also honored at the award ceremony. International experts slammed a decision handed down by the Saudi courts that gave the death penalty to five men in connection with Khashoggi’s murder, saying that it was a “travesty” of justice.