OVER a week ago I was shot at, kidnapped, blindfolded, held captive and interrogated. Not for real, you understand, though over the years as a reporter I’ve experienced all this. In this instance, I was undergoing what is known as Hostile Environment Training (HET).

For fully four days I was taught by former special forces soldiers and marines how, among other things, to treat traumatic wounds, identify improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and keep safe from cyber security threats, and went through a mock kidnapping and detention that involved being blindfolded and put into stress positions in a shipping container by masked armed men somewhere in a forest in rural England.

In the woods outside, the flat pop pop of blank ammunition being fired from actual weapons as colleagues were summarily “executed” was at times chillingly real.

I know this because years ago during the war in the former Yugoslavia I was lucky enough to actually survive just such an experience when the bullets were all too real and people died.

Hostile environment training might sound like fun and a bit over the top, but it’s far from it. In many ways it has become a professional necessity for those journalists whose beat includes some of the more risky locations in the world. In many cases it’s now mandatory before such assignments can be embarked on.

Alongside me on the course were colleagues from across the globe, representing news organisations such as the BBC, ITN, NBC, CBS and CNN, as well as freelancers like myself.

Each and every one of us had our litany of stories about the threats and narrow escapes faced in the course of our work over the years.

These stories and that of others took on a renewed resonance on Friday as those of us within the reporting trade marked World Press Freedom Day.

This year, like every year, the event is gauged by the unavoidable reality that journalists round the world continue to work under attack. Perhaps at no time in recent memory has that been more the case than it is today.

Writing a few days ago to mark the occasion, Michael Slackman, the international editor of the New York Times, reminded readers of how we are living at a moment in history when democratic values are under threat by authoritarian leaders.

“The internet, which holds such promise as a democratising force, has been co-opted by people peddling divisive, hateful ideologies,” he observed. “Citizens around the world who want to speak out are under siege from their own governments,” Slackman added, only just touching on the scale of the threat a free press now faces.

One of the aims of World Press Freedom Day is to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the field. Another is to assess the state of press freedom throughout the world. The World Press Freedom Index, compiled every year by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), does exactly that by evaluating the state of journalism in 180 countries.

Only 24% of those countries are classified as “good”. Norway ranks top of the list in terms of press freedom, with Turkmenistan at the bottom.

According to the 2019 index: “The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.”

As of April 29, the International News Safety Institute reports that so far this year 11 journalists and media support staff have been killed and one citizen journalist. At the same time, RSF counts 175 journalists, 150 citizen journalists and 17 media assistants as being imprisoned.

A report on global freedom of expression by the British human rights group Article 19 last year found that media freedom was at its lowest point for a decade. This is the case no matter what region we look at – whether it’s the killing of nine journalists and two media workers in Mexico in 2018, or the imprisonment of 146 journalists and counting in Turkey.

More than half of those journalists behind bars are being held in Turkey, China, and Egypt, most of them on charges of opposing the state.

This year, World Press Freedom Day comes less than a month after the murder of 29-year-old Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland. It’s a sobering thought that she was only two years old when the United Nations established the annual event back in 1993. Little could anyone have imagined that in such a comparatively short space of time the profession that McKee had chosen to take up would become under threat to the extent it is today.

Indeed it’s a cruel irony that on the very eve of World Press Freedom Day in a country recognised as one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists there was yet another reminder of the human cost our profession often exacts.

“They shot him in the mouth and heart,” said the niece of reporter Telesforo Santiago Enriquez, who was attacked by gunmen last Thursday in the town of Juchitan, Oaxaca state in Mexico, where he founded the radio station El Cafetal.

“It’s absolutely horrifying that this is how we have to go through a day when we should be thinking about the importance of media for a free and democratic society,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Journalists in Mexico are in “a state of constant siege that is worsening,” he said.

More than 100 journalists have been murdered in the country since 2000, amid a wave of violence linked to drug trafficking and political corruption.

Just days before he was shot, Enriquez had received threats in an on-air phone call during his programme, in which he was known for reporting on corruption by local authorities. He was also well-known for his work to preserve the region’s indigenous languages and traditions.

Frankly I find myself in awe at the courage of such colleagues in Mexico, one of whom shocked both instructors and fellow trainees alike with his terrifying accounts of working in the country during his own hostile environment training on the UK course the week before my own.

Enriquez’s fate sadly has become commonplace elsewhere too.

Emboldened by the hostile rhetoric of world leaders such as Donald Trump and his characterisation of critical comments as “fake news”, and journalists as “the enemy of the people”, criminal gangs along with authoritarian governments and regimes worldwide are harassing, curtailing and jailing media workers at every turn.

It’s understandable, of course, that not everyone empathises with what journalists do. For years in the job I’ve personally lost count of the times individuals have rolled their eyes and given me contemptuous looks on hearing that I was “one of those people”.

As a journalist, I, like many colleagues, have often been regarded as being about as worthy as something you would scrape off the sole of your shoe. In some instances such responses, I freely admit, were only a result of our own making by some within the profession.

AT its worst the media can be intrusive, lurid and vacuous or so beholden to political or commercial power that it becomes not so much unworthy as downright dangerous. To that end we need to keep our own house in order and accountable.

“We have a responsibility to the audiences we serve and to the wider public to be truthful and accountable, transparent and independent,” says Hannah Storm, director of the Ethical Journalism Network.

As journalists we need to root our work in humanity and the basic principles of ethical journalism, observes Storm, as we educate others and ourselves about the role of journalists and what is at stake when press freedom suffers.

Personally, I’ve always felt that the media at its negative worst has to been seen in context and offset against the wider undeniable good that a free press brings.

Part of this wider good is the search for justice, says Christian Christensen, Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

“Some of the very best journalism exposes injustice, and leads to rectification of that injustice. Some people will say that this strays over into ‘activism’. But, given that justice is about fundamental fairness and the rejection of the exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful, I see no contradiction,” Christensen insists.

Good journalism also questions power, he argues. A truly free and independent press is a fundamental tool for holding those in and with power –  be it political, economic or social  – to account. To that end, a vibrant, critical, free press is absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy.

As a reporter who has spent most of his working life covering foreign affairs, I’ve also always been of the view that good international reporting matters.

Our personal experiences of the outside world can be very limited, so the power of journalism to “frame” global politics for us cannot be underestimated. Such reporting doesn’t just tell us what happens abroad, it also explains broader international causes and implications of those events.

With that in mind, those who spend much of their time criticising the press might do well to pause for a moment and consider the implications of the following question: what if no one were watching?

In his eloquent essay in the New York Times last week international editor Michael Slackman summed this is up perfectly.

“Imagine if The Times were not able to report from Venezuela. The government there has tried to keep us out and has attacked our correspondents for their reporting because there is something it doesn’t want you to know: infants in Venezuela are dying of malnutrition,” argued Slackman.

“Imagine if we were not in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition has prompted the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

‘‘Imagine if we were not in Mexico to reveal how the previous government used advanced spyware to attack and undermine civil society.”

All these were stories that his newspaper– the New York Times – and others covered and in doing so they make a difference by initiating change for the good, be it great or small.

Take, for example, the banning of the material that caused the Grenfell Tower to burn so quickly after the investigative reporting of newspapers or the exposure of the rogue offshore finance industry in the Panama Papers.

On another level there was the New York Times report from South Africa that two children had drowned in the rudimentary latrines dug into the ground at their schools that resulted in the president announcing a programme to tackle the issue.

These examples and many more stand as testimony as to why a free press is vital.

As part of his decision to make global media freedom his priority in 2019 and ahead of an international media freedom conference next month, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has appointed international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney as his special envoy on media freedom.

While Britain’s move is commendable, the UK Government might perhaps start by taking note that this year’s World Press Freedom Index places the UK in 33rd place, one of the worst ranked countries in Western Europe.

While it’s a rise of seven places on last year, Britain still stands behind Germany (13), Spain (29) and France (32). The UK also now ranks below countries like Ghana, Latvia, Surinam, Jamaica and South Africa. It can perhaps take some solace however from the news that it still rates better than the US which fell three places to 48th.

Britain’s initiative to improve global media press freedom is to be applauded, but it would be naive to assume that press freedom can be secured by one government alone and particularly one with other political priorities and problems.

In a world awash in information, bearing personal witness has become even more important. That is why World Press Freedom Day resonates this year, perhaps more than in the past.

Three years from now I will be expected to undergo a “refresher” of my hostile environment training. Here’s hoping the world is a safer place for my colleagues by then. Personally, I doubt it.