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Profiles in Media Courage
29 March 2002
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a bleak report the other day. "Attacks on the Press in 2001" is a thick document with details about media suppression in much of the world. While American readers may feel very fortunate, they have no good reason to be smug.
Last year, the report says, 37 journalists were killed because of their work. Many more were jailed or physically attacked. In some countries the jeopardy is primarily legal; elsewhere the main dangers are assault and murder. But - one way or another - journalistic pursuit of truth can bring grim consequences.
Worldwide, the picture is largely dismal. But also inspiring. Despite serious and ever-present hazards in numerous countries, a lot of journalists keep setting aside fear to do their jobs with integrity.
Meanwhile, anyone who assumes that the USA is setting a great example should reconsider. The Committee to Protect Journalists points out that some ominous steps began as last autumn got underway. "The U.S. State Department contacted the Voice of America, a broadcast organization funded by the federal government, and expressed concern about the radio broadcast of an exclusive interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar." Later on, VOA head Robert Reilly "distributed a memo barring interviews with officials from 'nations that sponsor terrorism.'"
In early October, as the U.S. government geared up for extensive bombing of Afghanistan, efforts increased to pressure media outlets - abroad and at home. Colin Powell urged the Emir of Qatar to lean on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV network. Days later, Condoleezza Rice asked American TV networks to, in effect, censor tapes of messages from Al Qaeda leaders. As longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas noted in a column: "To most people, a 'request' to the television networks from the White House in wartime carries with it the weight of a government command. The major networks obviously saw it that way."
What was the global impact of such measures? The Committee to Protect Journalists, a careful mainstream group based in New York, has included this assessment in its new report: "The actions taken by the Bush administration seemed to embolden repressive governments around the world to crack down on their own domestic media. In Russia, a presidential adviser said President Vladimir Putin planned to study U.S. limitations on reporting about terrorists in order to develop rules for Russian media."
Actually, Uncle Sam is quite a role model for how avowedly democratic nations can serve rather explosive notice on specific news outlets. The Pentagon implemented a devastating Nov. 13 missile attack on the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul. Months later, the Committee to Protect Journalists seems skeptical of the official explanations. "The U.S. military described the building as a 'known' Al Qaeda facility without providing any evidence," the report says. "Despite the fact that the facility had housed the Al-Jazeera office for nearly two years and had several satellite dishes mounted on its roof, the U.S. military claimed it had no indications the building was used as Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau."
That's one of many ways for governments to "dispatch" news. The styles and methods vary considerably, but effective media control is an ardent desire of self-proclaimed democrats, steely autocrats and religious fanatics alike.
A reading of "Attacks on the Press in 2001" should disrupt complacency here in the United States. Referring to a case that put a Houston-based journalist behind bars for 168 days, the report comments: "The United States jailed free-lance writer Vanessa Leggett on contempt-of-court charges, joining Cuba as the only other country in the Western Hemisphere to imprison journalists for their work."
The slaying of independent-minded journalists is often part of a far broader pattern. In Colombia, several journalists died as a result of doing their jobs in 2001. During that year, in the same country, 129 trade unionists were assassinated because they dared to struggle for basic labor rights.
While a focus on the well-being of journalists is appropriate, it shouldn't become such a fixation that it crowds out the much larger panoramas of suffering. At times, American journalists are preoccupied with the outlooks of their colleagues to the point of absurdity.
Consider this paragraph from a March 27 piece by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz that appeared on the Post's website: "Journalists are growing weary and depressed by all the Middle East violence - suicide bombers in Jerusalem one day, Israeli soldiers killing West Bank people the next - and the sheer level of killing has blurred any possible story line. Cease-fire attempts are routinely violated within hours."
Eagerness for a tidy and comfortable "story line" sometimes causes journalists to get carried away with their own preferences for facile narrative plots. Meanwhile, a sad and ironic counterpoint to the courage of reporters in strife-torn regions overseas is their habitual unwillingness to buck management after they get back home.
Many reporters are brave about taking their chances in war zones. But in newsrooms -when it comes to challenging the prevalent budget priorities, the insidious creep of commercial values and the top editors inclined to spin coverage in sync with powerful interests along Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street - few American journalists have been willing to put up much of a fight.