Time for Journalists to Defend Press Freedom

Samar Fatany
Arab News
February 21, 2007

I was reading an online discussion between early board members and former directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) regarding the challenges facing the press today. One of the best comments I read was an extract by Ann Cooper, executive director of the committee, in which she gives an accurate description of how threatening it is to be a professional journalist and how the principles of journalism are being undermined.

“The vague, ongoing ‘War on Terror’ continues to take a sorry toll on press freedom,” she said. “Leaders around the world have seized on terrorism as an excuse to muzzle reporting in the name of preserving national security. They have succeeded in creating a chilly new climate for journalists, where public officials and the public itself engage in rhetorical attacks and legal threats to intimidate or punish media that dare report on sensitive topics, such as human rights abuses and the erosion of civil liberties. Journalists must understand this threat is a global one and unite as never before to protect independent reporting.”

Ann Cooper is an award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent with more than 25 years of radio and print reporting experience. Her courageous words underscore her well-deserved position as executive director of CPJ, one of the world’s leading press freedom advocacy groups.

The CPJ also includes prominent and active journalists on its board of directors, such as Christiane Amanpour, Tom Brokaw and others. It is the only American organization with a full-time staff dedicated to monitoring and exposing attacks on the media and freedom of the press.

The outspoken members of CPJ play an important global role defending journalists in emergency situations and acting on behalf of jailed journalists — lobbying for their release. Journalism is under constant criticism, and the task of journalists covering the news in war zones is becoming a much more dangerous business. More and more, journalists are being killed or subjected to violence, illegal detention, threats or intimidation.

As part of a journalistic study mission, organized by the National Democratic Institute, our group met with Frank Smyth, Washington CPJ representative. Naturally, as an Arab group, we asked him about Taysir Allouni, the Al-Jazeera reporter jailed in Spain in 2003 on charges of terrorism; and Sami Al-Hajj, the Al-Jazeera photographer held at Guantanamo for five years without charge or trial. Their cases have been widely publicized in the Arab and Muslim world, and many protests and petitions continue to demand their release. Both maintain their innocence, and they are known among their colleagues and friends as dedicated journalists who would not be involved in any terrorist act as claimed by the US government. Al-Hajj is held at Guantanamo as a so-called “enemy combatant” on the basis of “secret evidence.” He neither has been convicted nor charged with a crime.

Moreover, Taysir and Sami are not the only innocent individuals held at Guantanamo. According to a January 2005 report in The Wall Street Journal, US commanders acknowledged that many Guantanamo detainees are not a threat and likely have no valuable intelligence about Al-Qaeda or the Taleban.

Al-Hajj’s lawyer is Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that took up Al-Hajj’s case in 2005. He called the judicial system at Guantanamo a shame, and he contends that continued detention of Al-Hajj is political and the main focus of US interrogators has not been alleged terrorist activities but obtaining intelligence on Al-Jazeera and its staff.

When our group discussed the case with Smyth, he expressed his support and explained that CPJ in September 2002 wrote to then Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld, calling on the Pentagon to detail the basis of Al-Hajj’s detention. Smyth talked about the role of CPJ, which maintains programs to help journalists in dire situations and monitors and exposes violations of press freedom. It also organizes public protests and works through diplomatic channels.

One can only hope that the continued efforts of CPJ and other human rights organizations can gain the release of these two prominent media personalities.

Meanwhile, there are many others who have died carrying out their journalistic mission around the globe. Statistics note that 79 journalists were killed in Iraq alone between 2003 and August 2006. Among them is Mazen Dana, the brave Palestinian cameraman of Reuters for more than a decade. He was killed in Iraq in 2006 at the age of 41 while filming American armor outside Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Dana’s career began in Hebron, his West Bank hometown. He weathered bullets and violent attacks from Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers, and rocks from Palestinian demonstrators to report the conflict in Hebron. He received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2001 before being dispatched to Iraq to record the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The war in Iraq seems to have no end, and the Palestinian-Israeli peace seems to be beyond any reach. The situation in the Middle East continues to be very dangerous. Unrest in Lebanon, struggles in Sudan and Somalia and the threat of a pending US attack against Syria or Iran is every Arab’s nightmare and the concern of every veteran journalist who has covered wars and reported on its brutalities and the deaths of innocents.

Roy Gutman, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on human rights violations in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, wrote in the magazine “Dangerous Assignments,” a CPJ publication, that war is a school for journalists. He recommends the need to set up a standard curriculum to train the next generation on how to survive in hazardous environments, to recognize weapon types and to administer first aid. He recommends training in force and foreign policy, laws of war strategy and tactics to help restore purpose to the profession at a time of growing self-doubt.

The wars and conflicts of the Middle East and other parts of the world continue to threaten global peace. I think it would be wise for our professionals to heed Gutman’s warning and chart a new course for journalism in this dangerous world. It also is equally important, as Cooper points out, for journalists to understand the global threat and unite in the name of independent reporting and a free press.

Samar Fatany is a Jeddah-based radio journalist. She can be reached at [email protected]