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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Heroism, Sacrifice and Freedom of the Press

May 19, 2017

During my recent interviews with formerly imprisoned journalists Ali Al-Ibrahim of Syria, Dessale Berekhet of Eritrea and George Ngwa of Cameroon, none of them used the word “hero.” Nor did Khadija Ismayilova of Azerbaijan, Tesfalem Waldyes of Ethiopia or Housam al-Mosilli of Syria use the word “sacrifice.”

Yet in the eyes of press freedom advocates, going to jail for practicing their profession was a heroic act of immense self-sacrifice. The six of them served from two weeks to two years behind bars in some of the world’s most repressive countries, and all but one of them now work outside their home countries.

The interviews were part of my research into how formerly jailed journalists return to their profession and how the prison experience shapes the way they do their jobs after release. For example, does imprisonment affect their approach to reporting by making them bolder and more aggressive — or more compliant with authority and less aggressive? Does it affect the willingness of news sources to assist them? Does it affect their relationships with their own editors and media outlet owners, with colleagues at their own news organizations and with their peers-competitors at other news organizations? Does it deter other journalists from undertaking investigative and analytical reporting that may antagonize the powers-that-be?

My study is intended to draw on their experiences to identify what press rights defender groups, news organizations and journalism associations can do to better help released journalists transition successfully back into their profession, whether in their own country or in exile.

As of December 1, 2016, 259 journalists in 32 countries were behind bars, with Turkey, China and Egypt holding the largest numbers. That total is the highest since 2000, when the Committee to Protect Journalists began its annual census, and is a disturbing increase of 60 from 2015.

Press rights advocates attribute many jailings to bogus charges such as drug trafficking or anti-state activities rather than accusing them of what is, in essence, watchdog journalism. As a subterfuge, authorities prosecute and convict journalists on charges related to treason, criminal libel, espionage and terrorism. Those who attend professional workshops run by media development organizations may find those groups labeled as terrorist organizations.

The situation is likely to worsen.

In its newly released 2017 annual “Freedom of the Press” report, Freedom House said, “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders. Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”

One troubling trend is seen in new laws that criminalize insults and in vigorous enforcement of existing insult and “honor and dignity” laws. Legislative bodies are tightening constraints on Internet and social media communication, while regimes use increasingly sophisticated technology tools to censor and block journalistic endeavors, raising the risk that journalists will be arrested.

Journalists in the United States generally fare far better than their counterparts in most of the world, but our record is far from unblemished.

Our most famous early prosecution occurred in 1734 in New York City when it was under British colonial rule. John Peter Zenger, the German-born publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was jailed on a seditious libel charge after publishing critiques of the colonial royal governor, but a jury acquitted him at trial. During President John Adams’ administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were infamously used to silence critics of the ruling Federalist Party.

One of those arrested in 1798 was Philadelphia Aurora editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, who died of yellow fever before trial. Bache’s real crime? The temerity to use his Democratic-Republican newspaper to assail George Washington’s competence and financial integrity and to assail Adams for nepotism and monarchical ambitions.

In a high-profile case within my memory, Myron Farber of the New York Times was jailed for 40 days in 1986 for defying a New Jersey court order to identify confidential news sources from his investigative coverage of a physician accused of murdering patients. Judith Miller, another New York Times reporter, spent 85 days in jail in 2005 for refusing to disclose sources for her investigation of how CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame’s name had been leaked.

There are dark clouds on the American horizon. For example, a reporter was arrested this month in the West Virginia Capitol while trying to question visiting Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about domestic violence and health care. Journalists were arrested while covering demonstrations and protests, such as the Women’s March in Washington the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. And late last year, U.S. authorities barred a Canadian photojournalist from entering the country to cover the anti-pipeline protests.

During the 2016 campaign, presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would “open up our libel laws so when (media) write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” In April, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, reinforced Trump’s campaign pledge by telling ABC that the White House was discussing potential changes in libel laws. “How it gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story,” Priebus said, adding that “newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news.”

Back to the international journalists I interviewed.

One theme that emerged from our conversations was their continued commitment to the fundamental purpose of journalism.

After the trauma, fear, pain and isolation of prison, what drives journalists to resume their potentially deadly work? It’s a belief in the mission of journalism and the power of truth and information to bring about change. It’s a belief that journalists individually and collectively can be a force for good. As Berekhet, who was jailed for six months in Eritrea, said, “If I don’t do it, no one will do it. I have to try. This is my responsibility as a human being. It is not a matter of choice.”

Imprisonment also affects how news sources perceive a journalist, according to Waldyes. When he resumed work, it was tough: “There is this reservation to talk to me because sources know the government is doing surveillance on me.” Even now based in Germany, “it is difficult to convince my sources to come on the record and talk to me,” he says. Reporting on the situation in Ethiopia, “even my journalist friends [at home] are afraid. Now when I call from abroad they do not even pick up the phone.”

For some journalists such as Ismayilova, imprisonment reinforces the direction they’d been following before their arrests, covering sensitive and controversial issues such as conflict, corruption and human rights. She spent two years of a 7½-year sentence in prison, and was conditionally released in 2016 but prohibited from returning to her job with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She only recently reappeared with a byline on March 24 for a corruption-related story about companies with ties to the family of the president of Azerbaijan — the same type of investigative coverage that had landed her in prison.

Ismayilova says of Azerbaijan, “There is so much need in this country just for telling the truth. “Very few people do that. Very few people investigate stuff. Very few people question politicians, whether they are in the government or opposition.” She continues, “I’m not reporting to get a result that would be a change in the regime, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s my job.”

A few years before Ismayilova’s trumped up conviction, authorities tried to blackmail her with a sex tape. She told me, “My fear was that none of my female colleagues would pursue their career. The most successful of the ones I trained are women. I was kind of scared they would not continue, but they did. One of them came to me a couple of weeks after the blackmail and said we should continue” and offered a topic for investigation.

As part of the research, I also interviewed two clinical psychologists who work with exiled journalists through the Bellevue Hospital/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City. One of them, Katherine Porterfield, spoke of journalists’ high resiliency despite the “enormous barriers” they face in getting back on their feet and returning to work. “Every one clearly met the criteria for PTSD, and many were suffering from other physical ailments, as well as depression and mood disorders,” she said of those she’s worked with. “In spite of this, you still see people saying, “’I’ve got to get back out there.’”


This column is based in part on a study Freedman presented in Jakarta, Indonesia, at the World Press Freedom Day Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

May 18, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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