Newspaper readers might notice an empty white space in place of front page stories in their favorite broadsheets and tabloids on Wednesday morning. It’s part of a campaign organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers to mark World Press Freedom Day. Larry Kilman, WAN’s executive CEO told The Media Line that the idea is to “remind [readers] that without a free press, this is what the industry would look like.”
World Press Freedom Day was created twenty years ago by journalists in Africa who wanted to sound a call to arms to protect the fundamental principles of freedom of expression as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a call repeated this year by the United Nations. Although at first glance it seems to be little more than just one more ceremony and one more day of commemoration, to journalists covering a volatile world the observance has taken on renewed meaning in 2011. While the news industry undergoes a sea change spawned by new technologies and the spiraling prominence of social media, reporters, photojournalists and producers who cover conflicts the old-fashioned way are doing so under more dangerous conditions than ever, as evidenced by statistics documenting one of the bloodiest years in history in terms of casualties among working journalists.
The extensive list of participants in this year’s World Press Freedom Day activities in New York and Washington, D.C., bears witness to just how seriously members of the profession regard the issues of press freedoms and journalists’ safety. The international conference organized by UNESCO and the U.S. State Department will focus on the theme of “21st Century: New Frontiers; New Barriers” and the increasing role of the Internet; the emergence of new media; and the dramatic rise in social networking.
The breadth of participating organizations is a clear indicator that World Press Freedom Day activities comes at a time when savvy consumers of news are as keenly aware as news professionals of the terrifying cases-in-point. Naomi Hunt, the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Press Freedom Advisor for Africa and The Middle East, told The Media Line that so far in 2011, 17 deaths were reported in that region alone – nearly twice the number of journalists killed there in the previous year and almost twice as many journalists as were killed in the entire rest of the world during the same time. In Iraq alone, 7 journalists have already been killed during 2011 while none died there in 2010.
UCLA Prof. Judea Pearl heads a foundation dedicated to press freedoms that was founded in memory of his son, the Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl, who was captured and murdered by Al-Qa’ida in 2002 while investigating a link between the terrorist syndicate and Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber.” Pearl’s sense of accomplishment when in May 2010 President Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of Press Act turned to profound disappointment when he realized that the State Department is doing precious little to fulfill its mandate to deepen its reporting on press freedom issues worldwide. Specifically, according to Pearl and backed-up by a study conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, although the Daniel Pearl Law was intended to flag governments that participate in or condone press censorship, the State Department has failed completely to catalogue the violations such as physical violence and censorship by governments, criminals and armed extremist groups.
The dramatic rise in journalists’ deaths and Pearl’s experience beg the question of whether correspondents have themselves become targets as they cover conflicts. Pearl thinks so. He told The Media Line that, “I do believe that journalists are targeted more these days as hostile agents rather than passive observers.” New York Times Mideast correspondent Stephen Farrell doesn’t disagree, although he seems to see less overt intent to harm reporters. Farrell’s bona fides come with the distinction of having been captured three times in the course of covering conflicts: once in Iraq; once in Afghanistan; and most recently, as one of four New York Times journalists taken into custody and brutalized by Mu’amar Al-Qaddafi’s troops in Libya. He admits that there are times when either side of a conflict has a strong interest in preventing a story from being told either because it compromises strategy or is a source of embarrassment. He also admits that there are times when a regime seeks to send a message to a specific news organization – sometimes violently. Targeted violence, he says, is a much greater risk for local rather than foreign correspondents, praising the unsung courage of those local writers whom he says can find their families threatened, too. But Farrell believes that the greatest danger still more typically comes when the reporter is in the wrong place at the wrong time: the unanticipated victim of an incoming artillery round or a cross-fire.
In February, New York Times readers were captivated and horrified by a front page account of their time in captivity by pro-Qaddafi forces written by the four correspondents, including Farrell, who were taken prisoner while covering the retreat of anti-Qaddafi fighters. The now-safe captives bore witness to the unique sets of double-dangers which complicated the journalists’ plight. As described to The Media Line by Farrell, as if it weren’t frightening enough that he was standing before a Libyan soldier who was pointing a gun in his face, while this was happening, the rebel forces began shelling the pro-Qaddafi position where the Times group was being held. Farrell told of the instantaneous decision-making process that required he decide between two no-win solutions: bolting from his gun-pointing captor at the risk of being shot; or remaining in range of incoming rounds from which there appeared to be no escape. Absent his captor’s none-too-soon decision to join Farrell in his sprint to safety, Farrell’s third brush with death could have placed him on the IPI and CPJ lists.
While New York Times readers presumably found the correspondents’ account of their experience both harrowing and entertaining, it is not amusing and is far more worrisome to working journalists who know well that the level of danger facing those reporting from theaters of conflict has increased significantly in recent years. Farrell tells of a warning he gave to an enthusiastic young journalists anxious to follow in his footsteps. Farrell’s warning was that without a major organization like The New York Times behind you, it’s suicidal to venture into harm’s way.
Potential havoc lurks even outside of the threat of physical harm. The newest technological age brings with it its own collection of tools available to would-be oppressors – whether state-sanctioned or not. The new era that was heralded by the ability to foment regime-changing demonstrations from a computer keyboard also brings with it a new set of tools capable of inflicting abuses as devastating as the advances are powerful. In recognition of World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists has catalogued the latest array of nefarious cyber craft in a special report on how on-line oppressors operate, including but not limited to the use of web-blocking; malware attacks; and state-sanctioned cyber-crimes.
Legislation guaranteeing the right to communicate to the press that is as old as Sweden’s 1766 Freedom of Press Act has not outlived their need. But as Judea Pearl has discovered, passing legislation designed to expose and pressure government offenders into compliance with standards of good behavior fall far short of guaranteeing protection for journalists working in theaters of conflict. To that end, Professor Pearl seconds an idea he credits to a friend: that the United Nations create a category of crime called “a crime against society” that would criminalize the harming of journalists on the theory that the injured journalist is not serving a single newspaper but “all of society.”