Journalism is a profession of relaying facts and documenting the news whether through the lens of a mobile phone during an Arab Spring demonstration or an in-depth report that uncovers corruption at European banks or a blog that speaks of the suffering of a hungry town in Africa.
It is a difficult profession wherever it may be. It is rife with dangers, red lines and challenges. The journalist makes major sacrifices in exchange for publishing his work, which may expose his family to danger and end his life.
The circle of freedom of the press has become smaller today and the faces of censorship have increased. They may change from one region to the other, but they have in all cases hindered publication and doubled the violations. We now comfortably receive the news through a quick google search or a tour of twitter. What if we however stopped for a moment and thought of the army of reporters, those journalists under fire or behind bars, wherever they may be. Who documents their journey? Who defends their rights? Who will restore their silenced voice?
Faces of censorship
I tried to find the answers to my questions. I did not imagine that I would find most of them on Manhattan’s 7th avenue in central New York. Up in a skyscraper, on the 11th floor specifically, lies the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Formed by a number of journalists in 1981 to protect their colleagues, the committee is one of the most prominent defenders of freedom in the world. It is exerting efforts for a world where journalists can work without fear or threats in all corners of the globe. These are noble goals that may be impossible to achieve in our time. The most important product of the committee is its annual guide, “Attacks on the Press.” The book monitors the greatest challenges that journalists have faced throughout a year. The 2017 edition focused on the “new face of censorship.”
“We chose to highlight the new faces of censorship in this year’s edition because it is a serious issue as different parts of the world are witnessing a decrease in press freedom, especially in countries that have been known for their freedom, such as Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Kenya and others.” This is the answer I received from CPJ’s Communications Officer Kerry Paterson when I sat down with her over cup of coffee at her office away from the hustle and bustle of the street.
Paterson spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the change in the concept of censorship. She believes that the term now has a broader meaning that has made it more vague. The threat to withdraw ads from newspapers in Kenya is a form of censorship, the blocking of websites by some governments is also a form of censorship, threats to journalists is also another form. The most disconcerting censorship however, is “self-censorship” that some journalists may have to practice out of fear for their lives, she explained.
New definition of the journalist
The turbulent political climate in most parts of the world has forced journalists to work in dangerous conditions, especially in conflict zones. Paterson revealed that 88 percent of journalists who were killed in the field over the past year were locals, not foreign correspondents.
CPJ’s annual survey said that 36 journalists lost their lives in war since the beginning of the year. In 2016, 48 journalists were killed around the world and 259 were imprisoned. Sevety-two journalists were killed in 2015 and 61 in 2014.
The widening of the scope of Middle Eastern conflicts, the importance of spreading information and the diversity of sources have also altered the concept of journalism and the journalist. In this regard, Paterson said that “we have become flexible in our definition of the journalist.”
“For example, the reporter who practices accurate and independent journalistic work, but whose only outlet is his Facebook page as a result of his country’s restrictions, is considered a journalist,” she added.
She gave the example of a journalist who used to work at a radio station in the Congo, who when the station closed its doors, decided to carry a megaphone and roam the streets of his town to report the news. He died while doing his job.
CPJ is a research-based organization that offers services to journalists in every sense of the word, whether in providing financial, medical or even judicial aid or even helping them escape a conflict zone after receiving threats.
Paterson referred me to her colleague Sahrif Mansour when I asked her about specific cases in the Middle East.
Glimpse inside the Middle East
Self-censorship is the product of fear. Fear from the punishment of governments and terror from death threats that the journalist receives from extremist organizations in the Middle East, such as ISIS and its ilk. This is indirect censorship that forces the reporter to stop his writing out of fear for his life.
In the Middle East, specifically after the Arab Spring, the region witnessed for the first time several outlets to exchange information and news in the region. In the countries of the Arab Spring, the citizens took the decision to risk their lives to spread their opinions and what they see and hear about issues that ignited their revolutions. This is how Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator, took me back to 2011 in describing the atmosphere at the time.
Mansour told Asharq Al-Awsat that the revolution led to the birth of the citizen journalist and media activist. They did not receive any professional support or training to work in journalism, but many of them took the risk and some of them paid the price.
According to Mansour, over 100 journalists were killed in Syria, most of them youths, while covering demonstrations or developments linked to the armed conflict in their country. The same can be said of Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Several of the activists and journalists who were killed were working in media that was broadcast on the internet and that depended on volunteers who had not received prior training or who did not have any experience in covering wars.
CPJ does not offer training courses, even though it tries despite poor resources, but it works on saving journalists’ lives. The committee intervenes when traditional methods are useless, especially when dealing with non-government parties, such as armed factions. In the Middle East, said Mansour, CPJ focuses on helping journalists who are in danger, whether through offering any form of medical or legal help or financial aid to allow them to leave conflict areas. Some of the support could take the form of facilitations to obtain a residency for those seeking to immigrate to the US or Europe where they may continue to carry out their journalistic work.
CPJ’s role is not limited to preserving the lives and security of the journalists in the real world, but it also offers protection in the virtual world and the internet. Mansour said that the committee intervenes when a journalist is hacked or if his social media accounts are blocked, suspended or compromised.
In regards to the safety of journalism, he revealed that CPJ is in the process of launching a daily report on the operation to liberate Syria’s Raqqa from ISIS.
“We will work on raising awareness and issuing special safety alerts on areas that journalists should avoid,” Mansour said. CPJ will also explain the types of precautions that should be taken should journalists report from these areas. These precautions include knowing where the nearest hospital or the closest evacuation route is. CPJ has helped over 120 Syrian journalists, who were forced to leave their country and it helped them settle down in their new location.
Loss of security
These challenges may discourage a journalist no matter how much he may believe in his cause. These challenges also have psychological effects as well. Mansou explained that several journalists, especially those who covered conflict zones suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of psychological disturbances caused by their work in violent zones.
Despite the challenges, the phenomenon of citizen journalists distinguished the countries of the Arab Spring. The journalist may choose a pseudonym or a blogger activist may choose to write with caution out of fear of losing everything, but they still persevere.