press freedom

‘Anger drives a lot of what I do’: Amal Clooney on why she fights for press freedom

Camille Elemia
'I think anger drives a lot of what I do because when I read about what's happening in many places in the world, I just feel a sense of outrage that those in power are abusing their power'

The fight for press freedom of international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is driven by her “sense of outrage” over abusive people in power.

Clooney said this in a virtual interview with Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on Thursday, November 19 (Friday, November 20, Manila time), after receiving the 2020 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Clooney has served as counsel for embattled journalists worldwide, including the two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar from 2017 to 2019, and Ressa, who faces government-backed cases over Rappler’s critical coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (READ: Maria Ressa arrested for cyber libel)

“One of the reasons I do it is because I know how lucky I am. I was born in Lebanon at the time when that country was going through a civil war and I was lucky enough my family was able to leave the country and we moved to the UK as refugees. And from there, anything was possible,” Clooney said.

“But I think another part of it though is, frankly, anger. I think anger drives a lot of what I do because when I read about what’s happening in many places in the world, I just feel a sense of outrage that those in power are abusing their power,” she said.

“Today, in 2020, I see in far too many places that those who are committing human rights abuses are free and those who are reporting on them are imprisoned. And I will continue to focus on trying to tackle both problems,” Clooney added.

Hope

Standing up to despots and dictators who have full control of their governments is far from easy. But Clooney said she remains hopeful.

“My name [in Arabic] means hope so I’m destined to be an optimist,” Clooney said.

“I didn’t start my career thinking I’m going to focus on cases involving journalists. I decided to focus my career on cases involving human rights and you can’t defend human rights if journalists can’t do their work. You can’t defend democracy if you don’t have a thriving and independent media,” she said.

“But the more I see autocratic regimes becoming determined to silence those who disagree with them, to silence those who expose the truth…the more determined we have to be. They’re becoming more creative in their methods, and so we need to be more savvy in our response,” she added, noting that lawyers, journalists, and legislators should all do something.

Clooney admits feeling pressure in some of her high-profile cases, such as that of Ressa. 

“I do feel pressure when I work on cases like yours. To some degree, your case does keep me up at night, and so it should. Because you might be the one in the dock but it’s actually democracy that’s on trial. If you can be taken away and handcuffed and silenced then every other journalist in the country know what they need to do to stay safe…. Your foe is the most powerful person in the country…. So the system has to change,” she said.

Journalism is in the family

Clooney’s mother, Baria Alamuddin, is a journalist who first worked in Lebanon before becoming an international correspondent in the UK.

Asked how this has influenced her, Clooney said journalism is both in her and her husband George Clooney’s family.

“It’s in the family. My husband’s father is also a veteran journalist. It’s something close to both of our hearts,” she said.

CPJ gives the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award annually to “individuals who have shown extraordinary achievement in the cause of press freedom.”

“I feel so honored to get this award. The CPJ does incredible work. I couldn’t do my work without them…. I think we both feel very strongly that journalism is the lifeblood of democracy and something we have to continue to fight for,” Clooney said. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com