The images, strong enough to pierce the soul, streamed across our television and computer screens last summer: Masked Islamic State terrorists, hunting knife in hand, hacked off the heads of one innocent journalist after another.
Equally disturbing was news that the Iranian government had imprisoned Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, apparently without cause. He remains in Iranian custody despite valiant efforts to free him.
And that’s not all: McClatchy Newspapers freelance journalist Austin Tice’s whereabouts remain a mystery after he disappeared three years ago while reporting from inside Syria — the same country where lawyer and free speech advocate Mazen Darwish has been imprisoned since 2012 “for speaking a language of freedom.”
Few will argue that the world is witnessing one of the most sustained assaults on free press and free expression in recent history. Indeed, when World Press Freedom Day is marked on Sunday, there might very well be more lamenting than celebrating.
Consider the toll this year has had on those entrusted with the often thankless job of informing us about our world:
▪ The Vienna-based International Press Institute reports that 30 journalists have been killed so far this year, a pace that could easily surpass last year’s 100 deaths. They dot the globe, from South Sudan (5) to Guatemala (3) to Afghanistan (1).
▪ On Jan. 7, two gunmen burst into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and opened fire, slaughtering almost a dozen people, including eight journalists. The men were reportedly angry at the satirical weekly magazine for publishing material that many Muslims considered insulting to Islam.
▪ Reporters Without Borders reported in March that police arrested a half-dozen journalists at the news website The Malaysian Insider. Their crime: publishing “inaccurate and confusing” reports. But those following the case say the arrests may be related to the website’s reporting about a government-owned strategic investment fund’s debts.
“These arrests have the hallmarks of a warning to the entire Malaysian press, one designed to deter anyone from taking too much interest in the activities of the government and the country’s leaders,” Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said in a report.
With attacks on the media escalating, a group of foreign editors from the United States and Canada gathered and an IPI meeting in Chicago last September to assess the situation and help find solutions. Of immediate concern was the challenge facing freelance journalists, such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who had been beheaded by jihadists just weeks before.
The process culminated earlier this year with a document called “Freelancers at Risk: A Call for Global Standards.” The Call, as it has since come to be known, lays out a series of global safety principles and practices for international news organizations and freelancers who work with them. The principles include ensuring that freelancers are aware that they must have ballistic clothing, endeavor to complete a hostile-training course, and provide detailed plans about how they intend to work closely with news organizations to make sure they understand the risks involved in a dangerous assignment.
The guidelines also call on news organizations assigning freelancers to dangerous assignments to treat them as they do staffers, factor in the additional costs of training, insurance and safety equipment in war zones, and to avoid assigning a freelancer to a dangerous assignment unless the organization is prepared to take responsibility for the the freelancer’s well-being.
During a recent meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, it was announced that almost 70 media companies and organizations — the Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, the Committee to Protect Journalism, the Rory Peck Trust and Storyhunter, among them — have signed on to the guidelines. [The Miami Herald was among the first to sign on.] Those at the meeting also formed a steering committee to deepen and expand the reach of the guidelines to more media companies and organizations. Diane Foley pledged to help spread the word, ensuring that her son would not be forgotten.
Activities, such as the new guidelines, are important but they’re not going to be successful if the public is not engaged. In recent weeks, a number of efforts have been launched seeking to get the public’s attention about the crisis facing journalists on dangerous assignments. Reporters Without Borders is spearheading a major media campaign on behalf of Tice, who has been missing for almost 1,000 days. A #freeaustintice website has been created and a petition launched calling on President Barack Obama to “do all you can to bring him safely home.”
Similarly, an intense effort is underway for Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief. The newspaper reports that he has been charged with espionage and three other crimes, including “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment.” Leila Ahsan, attorney for Rezaian, who was arrested July 22, told the Post that the charges are preposterous, arguing that he “has never had any direct or indirect access to classified information to share with anyone.”
At the recent White House Correspondents Association Dinner, Obama disclosed that he has told Rezaian’s brother Ali “that we will not rest until we bring him home to his family, safe and sound.”
A change.org petition seeking Rezaian’s “immediate and unconditional release” has garnered more than 380,000 supporters.
You may ask whether these campaigns work. The answer is absolutely. Consider what happened when the Egyptian government arrested three Al Jazeera journalists in late 2013. The organization mounted a global campaign to free its staffers, engaging media companies, journalism organizations, friendly governments and the public. It took a little more than a year but the journalists were released, although two remain in Egypt unable to leave the country.
On this World Press Freedom Day, click on the websites above to send a message to autocratic regimes and blood-thirsty terrorists that the media should be exempt from their proxy wars. By doing nothing, we’re giving the Irans and jihadists of the world a free pass to spread their “truth.”
Miami Herald World Editor John Yearwood is chairman of the International Press Institute.