The Most Dangerous Time to be a Journalist
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's the job of journalism to cover conflict. From competitive local elections to literal war zones. It can be fun. It can be very dangerous. There are natural hazards when journalists ply their craft in certain contexts, but there also are unnatural ones when they are the intentional targets of violence. Across the world, journalists are harassed, tortured, imprisoned and murdered by authoritarian governments, ruthless politicians and extremist groups who would prefer to work in the dark, out of the public eye. The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, was founded in 1981 to defend journalists who become prey. It provides guidelines for travel and safety, puts a spotlight on jailed journalists and campaigns for their release, and fights for justice for those who have been killed on the job. After nearly 25 years of service with the CPJ, this year, Joel Simon is stepping down as executive director. And he says now could be the deadliest time to be a journalist he's ever seen. Joel, welcome back to the show.
JOEL SIMON Great to be with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious what led you to CPJ?
JOEL SIMON So this was back in 1997. I was living in Mexico, I was kind of looking for the next thing. I always wanted to do journalism that had an impact and that was connected to some sort of broader purpose. And I had seen during my time as a journalist in Mexico that, you know, I had this incredible privilege, even as a freelancer, of being much safer than my colleagues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You covered the Guatemalan Civil War and, and the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico.
JOEL SIMON I did. And both of those were stories that I could not have done without the support of local journalists. I had a very good friend who was an editor of a newspaper in Tijuana called "Zeta," his name was Jesús Blancornelas. We started trying to work together to organize a press freedom group for the first time in Mexico, and then he was ambushed by the members of the Tijuana drug cartel. His car was shot like 140 times. He survived, but it kind of reminded me of why the cause was so important, but it also had a big impact on my vision of what my role would be at CPJ.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over the last 25 years, can you talk about what you saw, what you learned and how the landscape shifted globally for journalists?
JOEL SIMON Let's start with, with this attack on my colleague, Jesús Blancornelas, which he barely survived. You know, that was the onset of this emerging new threat of criminal groups and militant groups that would become a tremendous challenge for journalists and lead to sharp increases in murders and violent attacks in so many parts of the world. But then the other thing that happened was, of course, you had the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the war on terror and this new framework for repression which emerged from that which was anti-terror prosecutions. And there were a couple of other key moments in the course of the time that I've been at CPJ where I saw states dig in and double down in their strategies of repression because they were so threatened by independent information. First, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring when we saw this tremendous global crackdown on journalism and independent information. And then more recently under the Trump administration, we saw so many governments around the world resort to a new framework of prosecuting journalists for publishing fake news. That's the new framework for repression. You put all that together and you have a situation we're living with today in which all the data suggests that, unfortunately, this is one of the most dangerous and deadly times for journalists in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why so much worse?
JOEL SIMON Of course, something that you've focused on, Brooke, is the complete transformation of the information environment. The kind of end of the information monopoly that journalists once held collectively, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. There was a reason for people to give journalists free passage. They needed them to tell their side of the story to the world. They don't need journalists to tell their stories anymore. They have YouTube.
JOEL SIMON Well, yeah. And let's be realistic here. Whether you're a celebrity with a big Instagram following or you're ISIS with your own media networks, you have other means of communicating. And so the power that journalists bring to the relationship is reduced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you see as CPJ'S Biggest accomplishments?
JOEL SIMON It's really hard to think of wholesale successes. I can think of instances in which we've gotten journalists out of prison or even where there's been a political transition and situation's improved. But even where that happens, for example, in Ethiopia, where you had a political transition and you had a moment of press freedom, things have regressed terribly, or in Myanmar where we saw something similar under Aung San Suu Kyi. Certainly the situation there was far from ideal, but it doesn't compare with what we're seeing today or a place like Egypt where we saw a political transition and we saw some improvements in the press freedom climate. But that's not the case today. Or even Turkey, where Turkey was the world's leading jailer of journalists for a time and no longer is because the government has become more sophisticated in its strategies of repression. Or Russia, where we saw waves of intense violence committed against journalists and journalists being murdered. That doesn't happen with the same regularity in Russia these days, but that's probably because the press is more controlled and less independent. But I think the thing that I am most proud of is the success that we've had in winning the release of journalists from prison around the world. You know, of all the things that make me the proudest of all the things that I find most rewarding. It's meeting with those journalists when they are released from prison and seeing them recognize that they're part of a community, that when they are in these most dire and difficult circumstances, there are organizations and colleagues and journalists that stand with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you give me a case, or a couple, that really stick with you with a sense of frustration or sadness?
JOEL SIMON For some reason, I don't know why I did this, I kind of looked at how many journalists have been killed in the nearly 25 years that have been at CPJ. And that number is something like 1200. We have a database. And then I said, well, how many of them have been murdered? And that number was around 700. And then I thought, how many of them came to me and told me that they might be killed and yet went on with their work knowing how this might end? You know, and I could come up with a couple that I remembered meeting before they were killed, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist who was murdered in 2007 in Moscow. I remember we met in my office. I think this was the year before, and she knew the kind of risks that she was taking, and yet she went back and kept recording.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She was a towering figure.
JOEL SIMON She was absolutely, you know, another would be Javier Valdez, the Mexican reporter who CPJ honored with an international press freedom award. He knew that he was under threat from the cartels in Sinaloa where he was reporting, and that he might be killed. We actually tried to convince him to leave and to go into hiding, but he felt so compelled to continue with his work that he really couldn't accept or acknowledge the risk that he was under and he was eventually killed. And I think that in my experience, that is the most humbling thing for journalists like me and maybe like you, Brooke, and maybe others who are listening at a time when our profession is devalued and degraded and we're called all sorts of names and the public doesn't necessarily trust us or whatever challenges we face or we see the industry in crisis. You know that there are still journalists around the world who believe so strongly and so passionately in what journalism represents and what it's capable of that they are literally willing to give their lives. You know, it's painful, but it's also deeply humbling and a very personal way to know that journalism matters, and we at CPJ are standing shoulder to shoulder with those who are willing to give their lives for the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, sometimes over the years I've likened CPJ to supervising physicians in an emergency room. Finding that they're losing way too many of their patients. And I wonder whether it's been really hard all these years.
JOEL SIMON I have to acknowledge that it's taken an emotional toll and that there are far too many colleagues that we see imprisoned or killed or forced to leave the profession. But here's the thing, I don't feel pessimistic. I do feel quite fervently that we can and we have made a difference. And I also, despite the evidence, am optimistic about the long term future of journalism. I feel like we're living through a terrible and prolonged crisis. But I also believe that at the root, it is kind of a very essential human need, which is to be informed and to have the information we need to make sense of our lives and that those impulses will somehow in some way overcome all the obstacles, the violence, the repression and the challenges to the industry. I do believe that, that that's the future, but I don't know quite when that future will arrive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what bit of wisdom derived from your experience would you most want to pass on to the next executive director?
JOEL SIMON You know, you're part of a movement in which the challenges have only grown. So I think that you have to be emotionally prepared and I think you have to have the ability to stay focused on the horizon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While dealing with the cases at hand?
JOEL SIMON Yeah, while dealing with the cases at hand. And you can never lose your personal relationship to the work, because ultimately it is about people. It's about the journalists who we defend. It's about the people who make up the organization. And you have to take satisfaction and pride in the shared struggle. It's the only way to approach the work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What are you doing next?
JOEL SIMON Don't know yet. That's part of the fun, but whatever I do next will be supporting press freedom and doing all I can to ensure that information is somehow distributed more equitably, more fairly, and those who stand in the way, who use violence and censorship and repression to thwart that are challenged at every step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joel, thank you very much. I really mean that.
JOEL SIMON Thank you, Brooke. It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the author of We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnaping, Hostages and Ransom. Coming up, what yields better reporting: proximity to the community you cover or distance? Who gets to decide? This is On the Media.
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