Highlighting courageous freelancers on World Press Freedom Day

Freelance journalists play a vital role as independent reporters. In many countries they are the watchdogs of public interest, helping to support democracies and hold the powerful to account. Working alone, without the backing of a media organisation, freelancers are also susceptible to intimidation, harassment and self-censorship.

Highlighting courageous freelancers

As today’s World Press Freedom Day celebrates the important role played by journalists in democracy and elections, we highlight the stories of three courageous freelancers supported by the Rory Peck Trust who have fought back against intimidation, harassment and imprisonment.

Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh

Shahidul Alam

Image of Shahidul Alam: Copyright Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA | Used under CC license 2.0

In August 2018 Shahidul Alam, a highly respected freelance photographer from Bangladesh, was arrested for making “false” and “provocative” statements about the government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Shahidul had been covering protests that erupted in Dhaka following the killing of two teenagers by speeding buses. Thousands of students had taken to the city’s streets to demand road safety improvements and express their deeper discontent with the government. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Shahidul live-streamed the events on Facebook and in an interview with Al Jazeera on 5th August said that he saw police standing by while armed gangs attacked students. Hours later, more than a dozen plain-clothes police burst into his apartment and took him into custody. He was charged with violating a Bangladeshi law that prohibits criticism of the government on digital platforms. After 107 days in prison, he was eventually granted bail, but the charges remain and he continues to face a possible jail sentence of 14 years.

Shahidul says he was badly beaten while in detention but refuses to be silenced by his ordeal. After his release from prison a grant from the Trust helped him to receive essential medical treatment and physiotherapy for injuries. It has also helped him to replace damaged and confiscated equipment.

Shahidul was selected as a Time Magazine Person of the Year, 2018.

Larisa Shchirayakova, Belarus

Larisa Shchirayakova

Larisa Shchirayakova began working as a freelance reporter for independent Belarus station Belsat TV in 2008. Belsat broadcasts from Poland and for over a decade journalists working for the channel have been denied accreditation by the Belarusian authorities. As a result, many face regular fines and charges.

Larisa’s work for Belsat has resulted in 18 court charges and 12 fines since 2015. In 2017, after covering widespread anti-tax protests, she was served with eight court charges covering the illegal production and distribution of media products and illegal participation in demonstrations. For months she was also the subject of relentless online harassment and social media smear campaigns and subjected to visits by the police and social services.

With near-weekly court hearings, Larisa found herself unable to work and she developed anxiety, depression and insomnia. A grant from the Trust helped her to receive the therapy she needed to get better and also covered essential living costs while she was unable to work. Larisa returned to freelancing six months ago.

Aung Naing Soe, Myanmar

Aung Naing Soe

Aung Naing Soe’s work as a freelance journalist, coupled with his Muslim background, has made him susceptible to harassment by nationalist groups in Myanmar. He has faced death threats due to his work and has also been the subject of vitriolic online campaigns.

Aung is a photographer. He also works regularly as a fixer for international media including Le Monde, ZDF, Voice of America and Al Jazeera English.

In October 2017, Aung was one of four journalists arrested for being in possession of a drone near Myanmar’s parliament compound when he was on assignment for the Turkish broadcaster TRT. Initially held without charge, the group were eventually sentenced to two months imprisonment for violating the country’s aircraft act. On the day of his arrest, authorities raided Aung’s home where they searched documents and confiscated his computer memory sticks.

A grant from the Trust helped to support Aung and his family while he was in prison, enabling them to make regular visits to bring him food and medicine. As well as making the difficult days in prison much easier to manage, Aung says the grant also represented “a solidary of support for me.”

Aung has been working regularly since his release from prison and has recently won a fellowship to study communications at a university in the US which he will begin this year.

Freelance journalists across the world rely on the Rory Peck Trust in times of crisis. With your help and generosity we can continue to support and strengthen these brave and committed journalists during the critical years ahead. Support us by donating.