SOAS ICOP: Journalism in the Firing Line

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The Influencing the Corridors of Power team led by Professor Alison Scott-Baumann seeks to address a democratic deficit in Britain today. Since our inception, we’ve been bringing researchers and Westminster closer together by supporting academic experts to write evidence-based policy. We also hold live events inside SOAS. In February 2022, I (Nina Arif), with the help of Sanjana Deen and Rana Osman, launched a series of three events under the banner “Journalism in the Firing Line”, which was viewed by 2,000 people online and inside SOAS.

Why focus on journalism?

Well, aside from the fact that the ICOP team contains several journalists, we all find it extremely concerning that journalists around the world are being silenced – attacked – imprisoned or even killed simply for reporting information that is in the public’s interest. A free press in which journalists are allowed to disseminate knowledge, which may be displeasing to powerful interests, is a cornerstone of democracy. Upon this principle, we began the first ICOP event…

John Rees, Ruth Michaelson, Tim Dawson, Somnath Batabyal, Phil Rees at the ‘Journalism in the Firing Line’ event.

“Don’t assume your smartphone is your friend”

Entitled “When does journalism become a crime?”, this event gave insight into the real threats investigative journalists face and which effectively criminalises their work. One of our panellists – Guardian journalist Ruth Michaelson – was kicked out of Egypt for reporting on irregularities in the country’s official Covid statistics.

Tim Dawson, Chair of a Journalists’ Expert group on Surveillance, told us “Don’t assume your smartphone is your friend”, as he described some of the spyware found on the phones of over 100 journalists. We learnt about proposed reforms to UK law which, if implemented, would treat journalists more severely than foreign agents. Our host, award-winning journalist Phil Rees, took a break from his day job as Director of Investigative Journalism at Al Jazeera to be part of the event. He also opened up a discussion about the relevance of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, highlighting that journalists who challenge power are often marginalised, while the ones who reinforce it constitute the mainstream narrative.

“It’s not just Julian who’s on trial…It’s democracy itself.”

The Julian Assange Case” was our second of three events and in it, we explored the question does Assange pose a threat to global security or is he a victim of political persecution? This was a particularly powerful event, which opened with the graphic video released by Wikileaks, showing soldiers in an American Apache helicopter shooting and killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonald, Stella Moris, Tim Dawson, Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver attend the ‘The Julian Assange Case’ event

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is currently incarcerated in Belmarsh prison while he fights an extradition case brought by the USA. His fiancé Stella Moris told the SOAS audience about the disinformation campaign against Assange and the CIA’s plot to kidnap and assassinate him in London. Meanwhile, Dr Deepa Govindarajan Driver – a legal observer and author of an ICOP briefing on Assange, took us through the key legal aspects of the case. She explained the impact such an extradition would have on other journalists, who reveal the crimes of powerful actors. “It’s not just Julian who’s on trial”, she told us, “It’s democracy itself”.

We were all pleasantly surprised when Jeremy Corbyn walked into the lecture theatre and spoke to the audience about the work that he and other MPs have done in trying to secure Assange’s release. He spoke about the ‘scandalous’ role of the British media in their coverage of the case, which comes nowhere near to the level of international media coverage. Corbyn also promised us that he will come back to support us for another event, so watch this space…

Professor Dina Matar, Peter Geoghegan, Silkie Carlo, Mariano delli Santi, Megha Rajagopalan at ‘Privacy & Data: Who is Allowed to Share Information’.

What is and isn’t a legitimate use of our data?

Our final event focussed on an issue that impacts us all every single day. “Privacy & Data: Who is Allowed to Share Information?” explored how our data is collected and used by multiple agencies with or without our knowledge or consent. Big Brother Watch’s Silkie Carlo explained how damaging the use of data can be in profiling groups of people. She spoke about how the credit scoring agency Experian developed the tool – Mosaic Classifier – which profiled people based on their postcodes, thus reinforcing certain stereotypes. Classification labels included “disconnected youth”, “dependant greys”, and “Asian heritage”. We learnt about how this type of crude labelling was used by the criminal justice system (to decide if someone was a potential re-offender for example), by political parties (targeted election campaigning) and others.

The panellists also spoke about the potential dangers of authoritarian governments and the police having access to information, focussing on the targeting of journalists and dissidents. They shed light on how rapidly changing technology is causing us to rethink privacy and data, and we were left to ponder the question, what is and isn’t legitimate use of our data?

Inform, educate and activate

And so, after weeks of preparations – flyer designing – room bookings – liaising with guests and hosts – working with technicians – manic tweeting – setting up numerous Eventbrite pages and much more, we wrapped up an extremely successful three-part series. Motivated by positive feedback from panellists, hosts, audience members and MPs, the ICOP team is already working on more events. We hope you will join us in our efforts to inform, educate and activate the will of students, the public, academics, and MPs to do whatever we can for the causes which are important to us all.

We are mostly young academics on the team and ICOP is our way of ensuring that the voices of experts are heard, understood and taken seriously on issues that affect us all in our attempts to build a better world.

Find out more about SOAS ICOP

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