Raza Rumi, scholar in residence for the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College, spoke Sept. 16 at a #ProtectJournalists United Nations panel. The purpose of the event, which took place at U.N. headquarters in New York City, was to raise awareness for journalists’ safety around the world. The panelists called upon UN Secretary–General Ban Ki-moon to issue a mandate for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists.
Rumi specializes in journalism, South Asia studies and international development. For years, he worked as a broadcast journalist in Pakistan. Then, on March 28, 2014, a Taliban-affiliated group attempted to assassinate him. Though he survived the attack, his colleague died in the incident. Following the attack, Raza came to the United States in the spring of 2014 and came to the college in the fall of 2015.
Contributing Writer Ryan King talked to Rumi about the #ProtectJournalists U.N. panel, the safety of journalists around the world and his perspective on global media trends.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ryan King: Can you explain what the panel was about?
Raza Rumi Ahmed: The panel was basically in support of a campaign to protect journalists, and that was the hashtag of the campaign as well. Particularly in the last five to six years, the number of journalists who have been attacked or killed has been increasing across the globe. And one figure was that in the last ten 10 years, 800 journalists have died across the world. So, this panel was organized to sort of impress upon the United Nations Secretary-General to appoint a special representative for journalists’ safety.
RK: What sparked your interest in this sort of work to protect journalists?
RR: First of all, I am a journalist myself obviously, that this is very close to my own work and my own beliefs. Whenever there are journalists set to go in danger, that calls for our attention and lobbying, but also I faced violence myself in 2014. I was attacked by villagers, militants, Muslim extremists in Pakistan because I was a broadcaster and had a television show. They did not like what I used to say about them, and they tried to kill me. I luckily survived, but my companion, my colleague who was driving the car, my car — he died in that attack.
RK: Why is a U.N. special representative for the secretary–general for the safety of journalism necessary?
RR: To raise journalists’ safety is important, because what usually happens is that a journalist gets targeted, attacked in any part of the world and by the time it comes to the U.N. and through all the bureaucracy and through the secretary–general’s office, the whole matter gets delayed. It is just to improve the response of agencies to such incidents that we need a dedicated staff of the United Nations who can intervene and speak to the governments or pressurize the governments in improving journalists’ safety.
RK: Besides having a new representative for the safety of journalists, what other steps would you like to see the U.N. take to protect journalists?
RR: The U.N. has many bodies and many arms and many special purpose agencies, and what they can do is they have to start questioning the member states where journalists are attacked with impunity. The major problem, one problem is that these attacks are seldom punished, so there’s a culture of impunity here. Whether journalists get targeted, whether he or she’s attacked or killed or harassed, nothing happens. Usually the member governments just brush it aside, or sometimes in countries like Russia, where there’s an elected leader like Putin, they are involved … if it is the state itself, then the international community or other member states of the United Nations can pressurize that particular government to improve the situation for journalists.
RK: How do you feel the journalism industry has changed for better or worse in recent history in terms of journalists’ safety?
RR: I think, first of all, it works both ways. What is happening is that the digital media, or what is called the new media, has opened up many avenues for journalists where they can carry out independent work. And they are not always bound by some big mainstream media outlet to publish their stories. That in a way is kind of liberating. But at the same time, that is also very restrictive because, as we know, digital media is also monitored now, and a lot of violent groups such as the drug cartels or the religious fanatics — they also monitor digital media and, in fact, groups like ISIS are very active on social media. … And since then, we have seen so many local and foreign journalists getting targeted, and I think that culture has to change, and it can only change once you end the impunity with which journalists are attacked or killed.
RK: What was the biggest takeaway from the panel to you personally and why?
RR: I think there were two or three takeaways. The first one was that international community and international institutions like the United Nations have a lot more to do. I mean, they need to do more to ensure that journalists are protected. So far, the role of when they raise their voice and intervene, but the response is really slow. You need a quick and effective response and intervention to save the lives of journalists and also to protect media freedom.