2018 was the worst year on record for violence against journalists. 80 were killed, 348 were in prison, and 60 held hostage, according to Reporters Without Borders’ annual report.
It’s too early to tell if 2019 will be any better, but with Presidents like Trump, Erdogan and Bolsonaro overtly attacking the free press on the global stage, the need for strong, independent journalism has never felt more acute.
And that violence has never felt so close to home. The murder of Lyra McKee just two weeks ago shook the European press. The 29 year old was shot while covering the riots in Derry. At just 18 McKee was in Private Eye, using Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover civil servants undermining Belfast’s Rape Crisis provision. That gunman didn’t just kill a talented young woman - he killed someone who was set to hold power to account for decades to come.
Sadly Lyra’s murder followed a wave of murders in Europe. Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria - all in the last two years.
These killings are what make the front pages. What we don’t hear about are the daily struggles journalists face from some of the people they try to write about, things like libel threats and aggressive attempts to destroy their reputations.
I’m reading ‘Billion Dollar Whale’ at the moment - a New York Times bestseller and a fascinating dive into the murky world of 1MDB, the story of international fraud which allegedly saw billions siphoned from a Malaysian investment fund. It’s a great book about what could be one of the biggest corruption scandals of our time - but if you’re in the UK, you’ll have to take my word for it because lawyers have threatened booksellers with legal action to keep it off the shelves.
It takes more than a team of lawyers to manage a reputation in the face of allegations like these though. Last week the Global Investigations Review reported that Jho Low - the fugitive businessman and protagonist of the book - has spent a whopping $1 million on PR as he fights against US and Malaysian charges connected to the billions allegedly embezzled from Malaysia. Low insists he has not broken any laws, is not guilty of any fraud and has said that he is not being investigated.
One million dollars sounds like a lot to me, but Low reportedly racked up a bigger tab than that at a single party in Saint Tropez. Compare that to the fact that the Guardian, one of the most read online publications in the world, is celebrating *breaking even* for the first time in recent history - and you begin to get a sense of how level the playing field is.
Schillings, one of the firms representing Low, was previously referred to as ‘the Silencer’ by the Daily Mail and an ‘attack dog firm’ by the Telegraph. Their decision to send threatening letters to the book sellers rather than the authors or publishers has been criticised by free speech campaigners. Schillings’ letters say the allegations in the book are defamatory and wholly untrue. Campaigners say their approach could be seen as an attempt to ‘short-circuit the legal process’. The result is it is practically impossible to get hold of a copy of the book in the UK.
But that doesn’t stop us talking about it. On May 15th we’ll be joined by Bradley Hope, co-author of ‘Billion Dollar Whale’, and Clare Rewcastle Brown, who broke the 1MDB story. We’ll get the low down on the scandal itself, and discuss what we can do about the threats faced by investigative journalists with Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders.
So if you’re in London, join us on the 15th for an evening to celebrate investigative journalism and stand up to those who try to silence it. Sign up for your free ticket here