Practicing journalism in a smaller, riskier world

Practicing journalism in a smaller, riskier world

By Frank Smyth

                I’m old enough to have handled Moveable type — long, rectangular pieces of steel or lead with a letter, character, number, punctuation mark or space forged at one end. In 1976, at 15, I had a part-time job as a letterpress clerk at my hometown weekly. I worked the metal pieces of type into clamped blocks to fit into a letterpress machine. It sat in the basement near the newer, bigger printing presses that inked the newspaper. My old machine was about 5 feet tall and weighed maybe a ton. Each time I pulled down its handle, it inked out onto an envelope the mailing address of a college student or someone else who still wanted to read the town paper even though they lived out of town.

                I’m young enough to have never used anything but a computer to file from overseas. Nearly every foreign correspondent by 1988 used a Tandy 200 from Radio Shack. A laptop before anybody coined the term. It had no hard drive and only 24 Kilobytes of RAM –just enough to save one story at a time. There was no Internet. The Tandys had a built-in modem with settings for pulse or tone that we used to direct dial a newspaper’s main frame computer. Pulse was about the only setting that worked abroad. You had to pay out of pocket and hope to get reimbursed later for long distance calls, and you had to exactly match the settings of stop bits, character bits, and parity each time to get in.

                Printing presses inked out text in different written languages for over a 1,000 years, and, in more recent centuries, gave rise to the term we still use for news outlets: the press. Computers have been around for about 30 years, and they have revolutionized the world of news and information. The craft of journalism is the same: attempting to verify information before reporting it, being transparent about what could and could not be verified, and providing context. But many other things are different.

                Technology has made the impact of reporting and other communications more immediate. Earlier this year, Egyptian police and militia detained or attacked foreign correspondents from every conceivable outlet. Before he fell, President Hosni Mubarak tried to literally unplug Egypt, shutting down satellite connections, cell phone service and the Internet. Back in the 1960s it took at least a few days for film shot in Vietnam to be flown to New York, developed and broadcast. Now what may be a fresh report to the public back home may serve as a real-time intelligence report to combatants.

                The public perception of journalists has changed, too. At home Americans have steadily lost respect for journalists over the past quarter century. Little more than a quarter of Americans say news organizations get their facts right, and about 60 percent say they are biased. Overseas actors of all kinds have grown increasingly hostile to journalists. Back in the 1980s in Central America journalists routinely wrote TV in large letters in masking tape on their vehicles to help deter attacks. Today few journalists would be so bold to do so in almost any region of the world.

                Many journalists in the past also operated with the sense that they were journalists first. But in recent years many journalists have been targeted over their nationality, ethnicity or religion. Everyone knows the case of then-Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. But Western journalists comprise only a relative handful of all journalists killed anywhere around the world. Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi correspondent for Al Jazeera and later Al-Arabiya, based in Doha and Dubai, respectively. In 2006, Bahjat and her TV crew were reporting at a major Shi’ite shrine right after it was bombed. Gunmen in a white car arrived on the scene demanding to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent. Her remains and those of two crew members were found the following day bearing signs of torture.

                One’s nationality, in particular, can be a two-way street. Stephen Farrell is a British national working for The New York Times. In 2009 he and an Afghani journalist working as his fixer, Sultan Munadi, were captured by Taliban combatants. (Hostage takers, too, have learned how to Google to glean information about their captors.) British authorities told Farrell’s family member and New York Times editors that they were weighing options before ordering British special forces to mount a surprise rescue operation. U.K. authorities said they did so to try and save the one British national. U.K. soldiers rescued Farrell but the Afghani journalist Munadi was killed along with an Afghani woman and one British soldier. This and other cases show how hard it is for journalists to maintain that they are journalists first anymore.

                But one thing has stayed the same. Local journalists continue to be, and have long been the journalists most at risk. Nearly 90 percent of journalists killed around the world are killed within the borders of their own nation. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya repeatedly exposed human rights abuses before she was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. The Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga criticized his own government and foretold his own death before eight helmeted men on four motorcycles beat him with iron bars and wooden poles. He died a few hours later.

                Consider these two rarely reported facts: A local journalist is murdered somewhere around the world at least once every 11 day; the murderers get away with it in nearly nine out of 10 cases. Journalists tend to be violently attacked in open states or nations that are at least nominally democratic. They include Iraq, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.  Here’s another underreported statistic: Government officials of one kind or another have killed nearly as many journalists as have terrorist groups and other armed rebel forces, according to research by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, from which other data here not otherwise attributed is taken.

                In closed societies or nations run by a single political party or another absolute entity, outright censorship and imprisonment of journalists is common. Iran, China, Eritrea and Burma each top the latest list with the most journalists in jail. About half of them are behind bars on anti-state charges like terrorist collaboration, espionage, or propagandizing against the state.

                Two more trends reflect other new changes in news and information. More online journalists are behind bars today than either print or broadcast journalists, and nearly half of all the journalists languishing in jails around the world are also freelancers.

                At the same time, wars remain dangerous beats to cover. Many journalists have been killed or injured on the battlefield. More than 200 journalists and media workers have been killed or injured in Iraq alone since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Fire from U.S. military forces killed 16 journalists among them. That figure also includes two Iraqi photojournalists working for Reuters killed in a helicopter attack firing in an area that included armed men. The U.S. military’s own video of the attack later surfaced on the anti-secrecy information network WikiLeaks. The video showed the helicopter killing or critically injuring other civilians, including children.

                Sexual assaults and rapes of female journalists is another concern that has recently been brought to light. The sustained sexual assault of CBS Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo during anti-government protests in Egypt shocked many observers, but some were less surprised.

                Women who are veteran journalists came forward one after another detailing their own experiences with groping and more severe sexual assaults by crowds of men in different nations.

                Technology has no doubt made the world a smaller place. But it is one at least as dangerous, if not more so, than before.  “Why then do we do it?” asked Sri Lanka’s Wickramatunga, a husband and father of three children, shortly before his own murder. “But there is a calling,” he answered, “that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”


Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and the journalist security coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Smyth’s clips are at Visit CPJ at

This piece originally appeared in the Montana Journalism Review, Vol. 40, Summer 2011

Global Media Forum Cites Risks of Environmental Reporting

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ blog.

He’s young, unemployed, and carries himself with the innocence of a man who hasn’t spent much time outside his own village. But Egyptian blogger Tamer Mabrouk is the real deal. Appearing at an international media conference in Bonn, Mabrouk’s description of chemical dumping into a brackish lagoon on the northern Nile Delta near the Mediterranean Sea was punctuated by photos of unmistakable filth. He won over the audience when, in response to a question on how one travels with sensitive material, Tamer deftly removed a memory card secreted in an electronic device and held it in the air. That, he said, is where he had carried documents for this trip.

The lines between journalism and blogging have never been blurrier, but the risks and challenges of reporting on environmental issues are clear. BP workers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel have denied access to photographers and camera crews trying to document the ongoing oil spill off shore of the U.S. coastline in the Gulf of Mexico. In many other nations, extreme and sometimes violent reprisals have been reported in the wake of stories on environmental degradation.

Before I tell you about the journalists who made it to the June 22 environmental panel at the third annual Global Media Forum, hosted by the German state broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, I’d like to tell you about a few who were unable to travel. Few journalists have done more to document illegal logging and other encroachments on the Brazilian Amazon than Lúcio Flávio Pinto. But, in response to his stories, private companies, government officials, and other actors have filed more than 30 lawsuits against him in courts whose integrity is challenged. The point of the suits is to harass, if not drive him into bankruptcy, says Pinto who turned down the invitation to join the panel in Germany. If he were to leave Brazil for even a few days, he explained, he might fail to respond to a judge’s unexpected ruling and thereby lose a case seeking damages.

Another potential panelist just couldn’t physically travel. Mikhael Beketov was a Russian reporter who criticized the local government’s plans to deforest an area in order to build a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. He was later found in a coma lying in the garden of his home, at least a day and a half after assailants broke his skull, smashed his fingers, broken his legs, and left him in the freezing cold. One leg and several fingers were later amputated. Elsewhere, environmental journalists in Guinea and Bulgaria have been threatened; journalist Joey Estriber was abducted by unidentified men in the Philippines, never to be seen again.

But one thing that all the panelists in Bonn made clear is that subtle forms of pressure can also silence environmental reporters. Liu Jiangiang is one of China’s few journalists whose stories have led authorities to suspend if not stop dams and other construction projects with potential environmental consequences. He explained that the unwritten rules about what is and is not permitted in China may change without warning, and that pressure often comes from hidden sources to communicate “don’t do that again.”

Elsewhere in Asia, however, the environment is still seen as a minor concern. Rena Saeed Khan writes the weekly “Earthly Matters” column for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language daily. She told a packed room in Bonn that terrorist bombings still make the front page in Pakistani papers, and that climate change or other environmental stories make page two at best–even though, she added, there is sometimes a connection between them. There is a nexus between militants and what Khan called the “timber mafia” in the nation’s northwest tribal areas. She also warned that in South Asia, like on several other continents, stories about competition over dwindling water supplies are looming.

In Haiti, it’s not the water but plastic water bottles that are adding to the country’s growing waste in the wake of the January earthquake, according to relief agency sources. Roosevelt Jean Francois is the leader of a community-minded journalist organization called CECOSIDA that promotes leadership development and training on reporting health, environmental and other matters. He noted that one yet untold effect of the relief efforts is the corruption, especially among local officials, over controlling distribution of foreign aid. Francois also noted that Haitian journalists covering any sensitive matter operate in an environment where reporters enjoy little protection against threats and violent reprisals.

Environmental reporters are more often silenced quietly through economic pressure, noted Jean François Julliard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. The pressure may be so great on traditional journalists, noted Julliard, that bloggers may emerge as the chroniclers doing the best reporting. By then I had already underscored to the audience that RSF, the Paris-based press freedom watchdog, had issued a report on the myriad risks of environmental reporting worldwide.

The case of the young Egyptian blogger, Tamer Mabrouk, illustrated the point. He not only got fined for his online exposés, including documents and photographs of dumping by Trust Chemicals Company into Manzala Lake. He lost his job at the factory, too.

This blog is dedicated to colleague and friend Persephone Miel, a champion of press freedom, kindness, and humor.