Protecting Journalists

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowFrank Smyth, Washington, DC representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Maryam Ishani, an online video media producer for Reuters who was assaulted in Cairo on February 2 while covering the uprising in Egypt, discussed the recent violence against journalists in the Middle East and the status of journalists covering the recent uprisings in the region.

The disturbing story of the assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Cairo is just one in a long line of incidents involving violence against journalists.

Maryam Ishani was robbed, beaten, and detained in Tahrir Square during the anti-government protests. She described a scene in which she, an Iranian, went into the square unaccompanied by French and German colleagues because she was the only one who might pass for Egyptian. When questioned by a unit at an ad hoc security checkpoint, she was quickly recognized as a foreign journalist. That's when the violence started.

I'd never been more anxious in any assignment as I had been here in Cairo — and I'd worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. My nerves are pretty rattled. I suffered internal bleeding and bruises that took a good four, five days to clear up. I was physically not able to work for another two days.

Shocking, yes. But this was not a surprise to Ishani.

What was happening to the press wasn't something pulled out of the sky. If you look at the situation closely as the movement mobilized over the last five years, the press were part of the story going back, and to be fair, the government had reasons for feeling that the foreign press were international agents with some kind of agenda. I think that's a part of the story that needs to be told; there's a reason the government went after international journalists.

Frank Smyth has been trying to tell that story for years. Working with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Smyth has made it his mission to publicize the oppressive tactics employed by governments against the press.

Our objective is to raise the cost against perpetrators who would use violence or other means to silence or restrict the press. They do this in the hopes of keeping their wrongdoings in the dark. If journalists are attacked with impunity, then they pay a low cost for these actions. If we can bring attention to the fact that journalists are being physically attacked, then it raises the cost to these governments and other actors. Very few governments are impervious to such criticism; they seem to respond. We are witnesses to those witnesses.

This is a bigger and more important problem than one might think. The threat of violence and even murder is a common reality for journalists seeking to expose government corruption and brutality. As was the case in Egypt, simply covering events on the ground, and without a political motive, can be extremely dangerous.

A journalist is killed somewhere around the world every 11-14 days...Moreover, the overwhelming majority, three out of four are outright murdered, not even in crossfire, but by gunmen on the back of a motorcycle, that kind of thing. And the impunity rate, at which killers get away with murdering journalists, is about 88 percent on average. At the same time, there are 150 journalists imprisoned around the world at any given time, and more than half of those journalists are imprisoned on anti-state charges, for collaborating with terrorists, or espionage, or subversion, or other very vague charges like incitement. Governments have a variety of ways, from violence, which occurs more often in democratic open societies, to direct censorship and imprisonment in more authoritarian states.

Governments have a vested interest in controlling the flow of information, especially in the face of anti-government protests. The press, by its very existence, frustrates that goal. Events in Egypt and across the rest of the Middle East have gained momentum largely due to the magnitude of reporting, both personal and professional, with internet putting much more power in the hands of the people. Maryam Ishani said that it's becoming impossible for governments to cover every base—and that's a good thing

The attempt to quash the press is an attempt to shut down knowledge getting out of the proverbial square. I think empowering journalists on the ground and letting governments know that it isn't just a power in the hands of the foreign press, but that local civilians are giving information out and continuing to report, making it clear that if you want to stop the movement of information, you're going to have to shut down the whole square.

Violence against journalists might be nothing new, but neither is the apparent lack of sympathy for them, said Ishani. An NYU professor was dismissed for tweeting that Lara Logan must have been trying to "outdo" Anderson Cooper, who was also assaulted in Cairo during demonstrations. Perhaps a discussion of the chilly public perception regarding reporters in harm's way warrants its own interview entirely.

Journalists are seen as putting themselves on an airplane and into the fray. It's a kind of "you didn't have to be there" attitude...There's a lot of condemnation for independent freelancers that a lot of networks rely on. Frequently, there isn't that sympathy as much as there is for tourists or someone who just happened to be there by accident.