Approaching its 30th anniversary (it started at BAFTA in 1995) The Rory Peck Awards finalists tackled pollution-linked corruption, the Syrian earthquake, a Mexican Cartel, the Ukraine war, Brave vengeful Russian ladies, taking up arms in Palestine, the have nots of India, a political famine, and children of The Taliban. George Jarrett reports.
Clothilde Redfern, the Director of the Rory Peck Trust kicked the event off with the assertion that, “Solidarity with frontline journalists is essential in times of conflict – when news gathering frequently relies on local freelancers.
“Journalism has become increasingly risky, because sadly too many freelancers do not have access to the support needed to manage their safety. That is why our safety clinics are essential,” she added. “Thanks to the Google News Initiative we have been able to launch a risk and safety help desk. This and the other support we provide is essential but expensive.”
The RPT will be running a fund-raising campaign after losing the grants of some long-running supporters and having to suspend its crisis fund. “This will safeguard the future of the Trust and the next generation of freelance journalists,” said Redfern. “We do need a bigger budget.”
“The nominees were talking about how much democracy itself is in peril, and what goes alongside with that is a really high impunity for crimes against journalists,” she added. “The targeting of journalists in conflict zones is increasing, and it is becoming so dangerous that you need a whole team of expert security advisors to teach you how to manage your reporting.”
The big news organisations use agency supplied security/paramedic support on location, but this is not an affordable option to freelancers, and they are also hit by escalating insurance costs.
People tell such a difficult story
The News Award, sponsored by Google News Initiative, was won by the foursome of Jedida Andriamasy, Gaelle Borgia, Caroline Breniere and Jeremy Martin with the France 24 commission Hunger-Stricken Families in Madagascar Forced to Sell Their Children.
They pipped Guillermo Galdos with his C4 News commission Cooking for the Cartel: Inside Mexico’s Secret Fentanyl Labs, and Omar Haj Kadour with his AFP commission Syrian Earthquake – February 2023.
The Madagascar focus featured wonderful story telling from a flooded and remote farming area that did not have a voice. Borgia, a Pulitzer-prize winning local correspondent, said: “It was the most difficult report in my career. I walked for days and days in the forest under heavy rains from the cyclone, we did not know where we would sleep at night, and we went from village to village to get testimonies. It took me 12 days to get the first statement of a mother who came to sell her child.
“There is going to be more extreme weather because of climate change, but that is just an aggravating factor of what is a criminal famine. This is a political famine because of under development and the lack of infrastructure. The roads were damaged by the cyclone, and people lost their harvest,” she added.
“They could not eat a grain of rice for days, so it was very difficult to talk to journalists to say you need help, you are desperate, and you cannot feed your children. That is what we say, but those people tell such a difficult story with dignity, even though it is dangerous and they can be in trouble with the government,” she continued.
Galdos produced a shocking statistic:
“In the last decade more than 100 journalists have been killed in Mexico – two a month, and we don’t know about it [due to] the government being in bed with the cartels.”
A canary in the coal mine
The News Features Award was collected by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya with The Great Abandonment: The Extraordinary Exodus of India’s Migrant Labourers. This was a Guardian commission.
It beat Raul Gallego Abellan and his TV3 Catalonia commission Taking Up Arms in Palestine, Or Choosing a Peaceful Resistance, and Finding my Torturer produced by Victoria Arakelyan, Antoine Schirer, and Jake Tacchi for the BBC.
When Indian PM Modi called the national Covid lockdown some 200 million migrant labourers were stranded without wages, food, and housing. Abraham said: “The rare space for the independent voice, especially coming from India; on most days so many of us feel like the canary in the coal mine literally just singing our last song.
“This is probably not spoken enough from the stage, and it is probably even dangerous for us to employ that dissent, which is essentially the greatest strength of a democracy. It is lost and shut down in many countries around the world, so democracy has become so much of a mythology.”
Madheshiya added: “A film like this is deeply political, in a time in India where such voices are stifled.”
Abellan mentioned another freelance throttler. “Since the Ukraine war, the price of insurance to go to war zones is insane, and it is impossible for most freelancers to afford. The world is not becoming a better place.”
Antoine Schirer praised Anastasia, Marina and Alexandra, the victims of torture who went about identifying the man who abused them.
“They were prepared to share their story and fearlessly stand up to an oppressive system, despite any hope of real justice,” he said. “I really hope the story of these three women shows that it is possible for the ordinary citizens to stand up to immensely powerful states and demand accountability.”
It took a huge toll on us
The Sony Impact Award was won by Jessica Kelly for the BBC Arabic commission Under Poisoned Skies, about oil giants spewing out toxic cancer-causing gas pollution in Iraq.
The other finalists were Children of The Taliban, made for C4 by Jordan Bryon and Marcel Mettelsiefen, and Robin Barnwell, Hilary Andersson, Serhiy Solodko and Taras Shumeyko for the BBC commission Mariupol: The People’s Story.
Kelly, who did her hostile environment training with the Trust nine years ago, said: “Under Poisoned Skies was a really challenging film to make because we had to stand up very serious allegations against some of the world’s most powerful oil companies. It took a huge toll on all of us, but nothing compared to the slow violence that the families who live around the oil fields were subjected to.
“During the shoot four of the people we filmed passed away from pollution-linked cancers, and Ali the main character died of Leukaemia just a few months after the film came out. His father had the opportunity to confront BP’s then CEO at the company’s AGM,” she added.
“The companies themselves are meant to be monitoring the pollution, but there is no transparency. They are also breaking Iraq’s own laws around environmental pollution, and there is no accountability.”
Kelly addressed the big issue of so many filmmakers and journalists losing their lives at work.
“Since October 7 42 journalists have been killed – one Lebanese, four Israelis, and 37 Palestinians, which makes it the deadliest four-week period since records began 30 years ago,” she said. “Many of us had the privilege of weighing up the risks before we go and report from a war zone, but many journalists in Gaza don’t have that privilege.”
Extending this issue to a global perspective Kelly said: “It does feel it is much more unsafe for journalists now. There are lots of countries where you used to be able to work, like Egypt for example. But now holding a camera means immediate arrest.”
’Not recommended’ for passport
The Martin Adler Award, supported by the London Embassy of Sweden, has become a stronger element of the awards event in recent years, and this time it featured three great examples of the brilliant local journalism that keeps world news alive.
Sanket Jain was nominated by The People’s Archive of Rural India, Evelina Riabenko was nominated by the New York Times, and the winner Ahmer Khan was nominated by The Guardian.
Kyri Evangelou, a multimedia journalist and filmmaker with The Guardian, spoke on behalf of Khan. He said: “Like many Kashmiri journalists, he is unable to leave India currently. He applied for a passport more than two years ago, and that application sits languishing on a government desk somewhere with the words ‘not recommended’ stamped across it.
“Sadly, this story is all too familiar for Indian journalists who dare to expose the government’s shortcomings since the BJP came to power in 2014. There has been a relentless assault on press freedom, but despite the risk Ahmer has not wavered, and his bravery is reflected in films we collaborate on,” he added.
Khan has made films about the vulnerabilities of the Indian healthcare system during the Covid pandemic, on brutal attacks by Hindu nationalists on inter-ethnic couples, on climate change, and child trafficking
“Ahmer ventures into some of India’s most remote villages and forgotten communities, and has given a voice to the voiceless,” said Evangelou.