The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, whose worldwide mission is plainly stated in its name, declared 2014 a traumatic year for members of the news media. This undeniable fact hit home with the beheading in Syria last summer of freelancer Steven Sotloff, whose family lives in Miami-Dade County.
His murder, an act of unambiguous depravity by terrorists of the Islamic State, remains deeply painful, but he was not the only victim of the savagery that has engulfed the embattled terrain of the Middle East.
American freelancer James Foley suffered the same fate as Mr. Sotloff, the two of them being among the 15 journalists who gave their lives covering the war in Syria last year.
According to CPJ, 60 journalists were killed in 2014 while plying their trade in some of the world’s most dangerous places, mostly covering conflicts in war zones ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine to countries in our own hemisphere, like Colombia and Mexico.
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Reporters Without Borders lists 66 similar deaths. Since 1992, according to CPJ, some 1,100 journalists have been killed for doing their jobs in countries around the globe.
Death, of course, is the worst risk, but hundreds of other journalists were also punished in a variety of ways, including imprisonment (220) and exile (456 since 2008), according to CPJ.
For the journalists who suffered these punishments, as well as for those who bravely continue to report the news regardless of the danger and their own vulnerability, the reward comes in being able to inform the wider world about what is happening in some of the darkest corners around the globe.
The work of groups such as CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and, in our own part of the world, the Inter American Press Association is indispensable as a way to help those members of the news media who remain at risk. Their work also helps shine the spotlight on governments that consistently and systematically stifle freedom of expression.
In our hemisphere, that means Cuba, which once again this week displayed a heavy hand by detaining the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and others who planned to gather at Havana’s Revolution Square to take turns speaking about how they would improve their country. This is, of course, no surprise. “The government maintains a media monopoly on the island, which ensures that freedom of expression is virtually nonexistent,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Cuba is in a class by itself in the Western Hemisphere, although Venezuela is not far behind. In countries like Mexico and Honduras, criminal gangs have killed scores of journalists and, at times, virtually silenced the press when it comes to reporting on the activities of narcotics traffickers.
The problems of the U.S. news media are in no way comparable to what happens in these beleaguered countries, but efforts by the federal government to either spy on journalists or intimidate them remain worrisome. These efforts included the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records in order to identify the source of a CIA leak.
The lack of a federal shield law to protect reporters remains a perennial problem, and it will not be resolved until Congress decides that the First Amendment needs legislative support in order to fulfill the goal of the Founding Fathers to keep Americans free by letting the news media keep them informed.