The following is a transcript of the keynote speech from the 84th Anniversary Awards Dinner by Alessandra Galloni, editor-in-chief for Reuters and a past OPC Award winner.
Thank you to the Overseas Press Club for inviting me to speak this evening. A huge congratulations to all the winners and to the citation recipients.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the brutality faced by the Ukrainian population, the repression of human rights and information; the geopolitical factions emerging from the conflict – rightly looms large over tonight’s prizes.
Journalists are putting their lives, their health and their freedom at risk to gather facts on the ground in order to inform the world. Eight journalists have been killed covering the war in Ukraine over the past 15 months, according to Reporters Without Borders. Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich has been jailed for 29 days in Moscow on charges of espionage, and three other journalists have been jailed in Russia since the start of the war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
To my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, I know what a close-knit family you are, and how united and committed you are to getting Evan out; all of us here stand in support.
I also want to congratulate the guardian angels behind the journalists – the security experts, media lawyers, and other operations colleagues who work tirelessly for the security and wellbeing of our reporters on the ground. On the battlefield, in the face of increasingly punitive governments and amid growing physical and virtual harassment against reporters, your work is indispensable.
As is clear from the winners tonight, despite the predominance of Ukraine in international reporting, you have all continued to shine your spotlight on other parts of the globe – on the victims and perpetrators of past and new conflicts and on the oppressed in countries including Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, to name a few of the coverage areas awarded this evening.
I think you will all agree that it is our collective responsibility to remain in, return to and not forget places and stories around the world even when the media focus fades and when the headlines are no longer generating clicks.
Tonight, I would like to talk about another collective responsibility of ours: to systematically and unwaveringly recognize, protect and support all the local reporters on the frontlines, and behind the scenes, in the countries that we cover. We should do so, not only because we stand alongside fellow journalists everywhere, but because covering the world cannot be done successfully by foreign correspondence alone.
Last week, during an event at the international journalism festival in Perugia, I was asked by a young reporter in the audience: “are foreign correspondents a thing of the past?” I assured her that the world is thankfully still full of intrepid foreign correspondents.
It is true, however, that tight resources have prompted many newsrooms to cut down on permanent representation of foreigners in many countries.
Governments are also routinely rejecting visa applications or expelling foreign reporters as a way to avoid scrutiny – of elections, public protests or public policy failures, such as handling of the Covid pandemic.
Governments are resorting to espionage charges to turn foreign reporters into hostages, pawns of geopolitical disputes.
Foreign journalists covering countries bring an important fresh perspective. But they may not have the nuance and expertise of local journalists, with their institutional knowledge, language subtlety, cultural understanding.
Globalisation has forced greater levels of transparency around international news; which means there is greater pressure on us to deliver accurate, fair and accountable news from everywhere, equally – not just in the capitals of the countries where we are headquartered. This means more of us are employing local reporters across the countries we cover.
And as social media and UGC have given us a direct view into events on the other side of the world, audiences are demanding more insight than the birds-eye view of foreign correspondents.
At the OPC, the number of local journalists being recognized alongside foreign correspondents has risen over the years. Tonight, Mstyslav Chernov, Evgenuy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko, three of the reporters along with Lori Hinnant who won for “Erasing Mariupol” – the brave, harrowing testimony from a city under siege – are Ukrainian nationals, covering war in their own country, alongside their own families.
Jeremy Dupin, a Haitian national, is part of the Al Jazeera team that won for their work covering the lives of Haitians deported from the U.S.
Simpa Sampson from Nigeria is part of the Bloomberg news team that received a citation for “Black Snow, Nigeria’s Oil Catastrophe.”
When journalists in their own countries work for foreign media, the risks are high.
Local reporters do not have the cloak of protection offered by a foreign passport. Of the 363 journalists currently jailed around the world – the highest level in 30 years, according to CPJ – 354 are being held in their own countries.
Many countries have resorted to trumped-up charges – tax evasion, drug use, smuggling, hooliganism – against their own. The list is long. Among them: Maria Ressa in the Philippines; Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan; Roman Protasevich in Belarus.
More recently, there is Artyon Prokhorov in Russia, who has been detained since last summer for allegedly extorting around 1000 dollars from a local businessman.
Jose Ruben Zamora, president of the Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico, is in pretrial detention for alleged money laundering.
Even without legal trouble, local journalists often face harsh attacks for their brave work in the public interest. Our late colleague, the photographer, Danish Siddiqui, whom you recognized so beautifully here last year, spent months photographing the true toll of the Covid pandemic in his native India.
Abroad, you knew him for his poignant, devastating images.
In India, he faced government pushback, online trolling and public criticism – in many instances, he was called a traitor.
Because they often report on subjects that they wouldn’t be able to tackle for their national media, local journalists are often not recognized for their work – in bylines and in prizes.
I wish I could tell you about the tireless, brave work of so many of journalists at Reuters, whose names we regularly keep off coverage – in countries including Nigeria, Venezuela, Egypt, Yemen, China, Russia.
Think of Chinese colleagues in China and Vietnam working for our news organizations, who can only be referred to as “news assistants” and cannot operate independently as journalists.
When foreign journalists pack up, because it’s too dangerous to stay, they lose the story.
When local reporters flee their own country, they lose their homes, their livelihoods, their social ties, their culture.
You will remember Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whom you also recognized here over the years, who spent more than 500 days in jail in Myanmar before their release. “I am unable to return to my country…and many of my colleagues are in exile since the 2021 coup,” Wa Lone said to me the other day. “Myanmar is a stark reminder of the importance of protecting the freedom of the press.”
Think of Russian colleagues working for our news organisations and for Russian media. Many have fled their country since the beginning of the war. It is unlikely they will be able to return. For starters, their homes have likely been impounded for evading Moscow’s draft.
The intensifying crackdown on press freedom the world over has created a new breed of exiles: journalists who dared report dangerous truths.
For us at Reuters, reporters operating in their own countries are the heart of our operation. As a news agency, our responsibility is to be on the ground. We employ journalists of 90 nationalities and operate in 16 languages.
We try to not to have a foreign perspective; rather a global one. We do not operate a “foreign desk” – foreign to where?
This approach forces us to have a deep, nuanced commitment to diversity among our people and in the voices of those we cover….because diversity means something different for everyone in our global newsroom. It also means that the potential to be a “foreign correspondent” should be available to everyone around the world.
We believe that being at the source of news, before, during and after others fold their tents is an integral ingredient to remaining neutral. This is true even in countries considered rogue or pariah by the international community. It is not easy. But the approach is based on the belief that if a voice, any voice, is silenced, the world is worse off.
I was struck when I read Mstyslav’s first-person account of his 20 days in Mariupol under siege, which is part of the winning entry. He describes the effort by the Russian army to cut off all information.
“The absence of information in a blockade accomplishes two goals. Chaos is the first. People don’t know what’s going on, and they panic. At first I couldn’t understand why Mariupol fell apart so quickly. Now I know it was because of the lack of communication. That’s why we took such risks to be able to send the world what we saw, and that’s what made Russia angry enough to hunt us down. I have never, ever felt that breaking the silence was so important.”
Thank you to all of those journalists who break the silence, every day, around the world.
Thank you to all of you.