Q&A with UK Bureau Director of RSF, Fiona O’Brien

Highlights from our Instagram Live with UK Bureau Director of RSF, Fiona O’Brien about how to protect media freedom

Q: Tell us about your background. What does it mean to be the UK Bureau Director of Reporters Without Borders?

Fiona: I’m the UK Bureau Director of Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as RSF from our French name, Reporters sans Frontières. My background  is in journalism. I started out at a local paper in the UK,. And then I went to Reuters as a foreign correspondent. I’ve spent most of my career in the Middle Eastern and Africa, East Africa in particular. I worked as a consultant for the United Nations as an editor. I was the editor of a publication specialising in the Gulf region and then went to Kingston University, where I ran the MA in journalism for seven years before coming to RSF.

I had quite a varied career path up to now, but all involving journalism output in difficult parts of the world, which is I suppose is where I got my interest in press freedom. At RSF, we have a small Bureau here in London, our headquarters are in Paris, and we have bureaus all around the world, all working for the defence of press freedom, and those who espouse those kinds of ideals. We are an organisation that works to defend freedom of the press, pluralism of the press and independence of the press because without those things, it’s not possible to have a functioning democracy.


Q: Why should press freedom be of concern to all of us to communities and what’s the importance of marking a press freedom day? 

Fiona: World Press Freedom Day, which has been around for a few decades, is an occasion for the community to come together and think about the situation for journalists around the world. As with all these days, press freedom isn’t something that only matters on one day of the year. But from our perspective, it’s very helpful to have points of  focus and concentration, which enables us to get some discussion around these issues. For us, it’s also a significant day at RSF because we released our annual World Press Freedom Index. We have an important document and it’s a product that carries on through the year, every year. We look at 180 countries and territories and rank them according to how free it is for journalists to work there.

It’s really important to remember when we talk about press freedom, it’s not about defending journalists, for the sake of defending journalists. We’re not interested in one particular group, society or particular profession and trying to protect them. The reason that it matters is because what the press do is hold power to account. In a democratic society, a democracy being a political system where everybody’s voice is supposed to be represented. The people need assistance to know what’s going on and that can’t happen unless you have a free press. That’s why press freedom really matters if we care about a world with democratic values, if we care about those sort of values that we hold very dear here in the UK and in the West, and in other parts of the world.

If you look at the Index that we released yesterday, we have a map that goes along with it and we put colours on each country depending on where they are at the scale.The really alarming thing is that there are only eight countries in the world that are in the green. A very, very small proportion. Then you get a few more in yellow. The UK is one of those where we would be considered to have a satisfactory situation. So it’s not as good as it could be, but press more or less most days able to do that job.

But a huge proportion of the world isn’t in that zone. We had a record number of countries this year in the red, where we consider to be a very serious situation for the press. So that means 70% of journalists around the world, that’s more than half the world’s population, are living in areas where the press isn’t free and independent and that’s a real concern. That’s a sign of growing authoritarianism around the world.


Q: Who is at risk here? Can you paint us a picture of the types of journalists that are most vulnerable?

Fiona: In terms of the work that I’m doing, journalists who are working in authoritarian regimes and other authoritarian countries. Countries where the ruling actors and the political actors in charge want to control the narrative and don’t want any form of challenge in the press, but want to push their own propaganda disinformation, etc. Just to give you a couple of examples, in Iran. I’m sure lots of the those viewing now will be aware of the protests that have been happening in Iran since last September following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody.

When this big event happened, there were massive protests. And as a result, there’s been a massive crackdown on press freedom immediately afterwards, particularly targeting women who have been at the forefront of those protests. So more journalists have been arrested. Over 20 of those are still in prison now and they’re extraordinarily brave and inspiring journalists. Their commitment to the truth and to holding the powerful accountable is incredible when you think of the circumstances they’re working in. But they are very much at risk. 


Q: Do you have a sort of a message for young journalists about how they can arm themselves as best they can to prepare themselves early in their careers?

Fiona: I think it varies enormously, the response would have to change depending on which country you’re working in. If I’m talking to a young journalist who’s working in the UK, I’d have a very different set of responses than if I’m talking to a journalist who wants to start up in Hong Kong or Iran or anywhere else. So I think the general answer is to educate yourself, find out how things are. What is the lay of the land in your country? What are the laws that protect you? What are the laws that prevent you from doing certain things? And in that sense, I suppose it’s probably the same advice I would have given myself when I started out: surround yourself with journalists with more experience, whether that’s in your workplace, or if that’s not possible through your own workplace, by joining groups of journalists, by seeking out contacts.

As journalists, we’re constantly in contact with lots of different people. Draw on the experience of people around you. When I was just starting out, I was in my early 20s, I started covering quite a few conflicts. I had very little experience but was able to just learn and learn and learn from people around me. Experience is everything. So, just inform yourself as much as you can. I think this is the best advice. Never be frightened if you don’t know how to deal with something. None of us know how to deal with a situation when it’s the first time we face it, whatever stage of your career you’re at. Ask questions when you don’t know how to cope with something. Don’t think that you’ve just got to sit back and find out. Has this happened to somebody else before in your workplace? Is there something you can do about it? Keep having open dialogue. 

In my role as a university lecturer, I had lots of students who went into freelance work and also some that did  studies around freelancers and you don’t know who to go to because there isn’t a manager to go to in the first instance. My one piece of advice would probably be that if you are working largely freelance, especially if you’re at the beginning of your career, there are some really great mentoring schemes that are out there so that you have someone else someone trusted, who has more experience you can go to, who can help you with signposting. There are unions, organisations of journalists in most countries that you know, it’s really good to be affiliated with, so that you’re not working completely isolated because of course, it can be very difficult to know who to turn to.

It’s definitely more acute for freelancers but I would also say that the new working models that have developed around the world since COVID, can be really isolating for so many young journalists who haven’t had the benefit of a decade of experience behind them, who are increasingly working from home on most days and they lack the day to day support regular conversations with people who have more experience than you an bring. So  it can be really difficult and I think on an individual level, we will have to find ways to combat that isolation, whether that’s joining local groups of journalists, finding mentors, etc.

Watch the full session on Instagram.