Uneasy alliance: State Department and journalists discuss rise in violence

Doug Frantz spent more than three decades in the journalistic trenches covering wars, overseeing investigative reporting, and directing national security coverage. He did stints at The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Today Frantz works for the State Department, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Alarmed by the rising tide of violence against journalists around the world, Frantz convened a conference of journalists and press freedom advocates in Washington yesterday to discuss the challenges faced, particularly by freelance and local reporters.

Secretary of State John Kerry opened the discussion by declaring: “We all know that journalism can be dangerous. There’s no way to eliminate the risk completely, except by keeping silent, and that’s what we call surrender.” (His full remarks are here.) Kerry’s speech was followed by a Q&A in which State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki turned the tables on Reuters investigative reporter David Rohde, interviewing him about his kidnapping in Pakistan and steps that news organizations should take to ensure the safety of freelance contributors.

The tension at the meeting–expressed in remarks from the floor and in hushed conversations in the hallways–was the discomfort many journalists felt collaborating with the U.S. government, even on an issue as elemental as safety. The discomfort is understandable. Journalists need to hold officials accountable, and the less they depend on them the more effectively they can perform this function.

As Rohde noted in his remarks, in an ideal world such a meeting would not be necessary. But with record numbers of journalists being killed and imprisoned around the world we have reached the crisis point. Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that local journalists working in their own countries are particularly vulnerable. They would benefit tremendously from increased investment in security training and other measures that the U.S. government can and should support.

The meeting was also an opportunity for journalists and press freedom advocates to raise their concerns directly with senior officials. Chief among them was a perception that the U.S. had not done enough to advocate for the rights of journalists who are victims of violence and repression, particularly in countries where the U.S. retains significant influence such as Mexico, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Finally, the meeting itself reflected the realities of the complex relationship between the U.S. government and international journalists and brought it into the open. While journalists must cover the State Department critically, we also ask U.S. officials to intervene and support the rights of our colleagues when they confront restrictions. At CPJ, we regularly call on the U.S. state department to take action and we express our criticism openly. We will continue to do so. But we also appreciate the expression of support from Secretary Kerry as well as the opportunity to gather with our colleagues and raise concerns directly with senior officials.

The level of violence and repression directed against the media has reached intolerable levels. The threats, of course, are to journalists themselves. But there is also a growing threat to people everywhere, including in the U.S., who depend on the free flow of information to make informed decisions about their lives. This is the basis for common ground which, while uncomfortable, is necessary in the current environment.

“Where threats against journalists are so severe, we need to be more robust and unequivocal in defending freedom of expression around the world,” Frantz wrote in his State Department blog. “As a government official and a former journalist, I know we can do more.”