Thursday, July 30, 2009

Walter Cronkite and Journalistic Courage

By Katie McNish

Since his death on July 17th at age 92, Walter Cronkite has been endlessly memorialized as “the most trusted man in America.” The anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962-1981, Cronkite covered such major events in American history as the Moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. And while archival footage of the former two broadcasts – in which Cronkite echoed the nation’s emotions, steadily reading on while holding back tears – it was his commentary on the latter that set him apart.

Though his comforting on-camera demeanor and reliable nightly presence earned him the moniker “Uncle Walter,” columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times points out that, “what matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront … those in power.”

That courage was apparent during Cronkite’s broadcast one February evening in 1968. His reportage on the Vietnam War to that point had been standard, generally supportive of the U.S. government. But on February 27, having recently returned from a trip to Vietnam covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, he closed his broadcast with an editorial:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He went on to suggest that “the only rational way out [of the war] will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

In 1968, a year long before Fox News, MSNBC, and rest of the plethora of sources of journalistic criticism from all sides of the aisle, Cronkite was one of the first mainstream reporters to speak to truth to power. In a statement revealing the incredible impact of such criticism from a man as universally popular as Cronkite, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Then, in 1972, Cronkite helped to bring the Watergate scandal to the public. The Washington Post was one of the only news sources investigating the issue, and CBS had no fresh reporting of its own, but Cronkite took 14 of his broadcast's 22 minutes on October 27th to repackage The Post's coverage (crediting the paper, of course), pointing out the importance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting and the gravity of the corruption. Following this bold move, other networks began to follow suit, helping to bring attention Woodward and Bernstein's historic work and fueling public outcry over Nixon's actions.

After his retirement, Cronkite continued to fight for governmental openness to the public through media. For example, hee worked with the Alliance for Better Campaigns on an unsuccessful lobbying effort to have an amendment added to the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 that would have required TV broadcast companies to provide free airtime to Presidential candidates.

As Frank Rich writes, "the real test is how a journalist responds when people in high places are doing low deeds out of camera view and getting away with it.” It was this - bringing the truth about Vietnam, Watergate, political campaigns, etc. to the public when it would have been safer and easier not to -that made Cronkite so trustworthy.

Sudanese Journalist Gives Up Immunity, Faces 40 Lashes

The Sudanese journalist who was arrested for "indecent" attire (wearing pants) has opted out of the immunity available to her as an employee of the UN. Lubna Ahmed Hussein was arrested while dining in the country's capital. Ten other women who were with her, some of them non-Muslims, were also arrested and received 10 lashes and a fine.

Hussein and three other women chose to hire lawyers and take the case to court. Hussein says she has surrendered her immunity because she believes the law is unjust and wants to fight to have it changed. She says she was following the Sharia, the Islamic religious law that tends to be interpreted differently depending on the country. Sudan is known to be especially strict. And as modern attire clashes with traditional Islamic dress, conflict is common.

Hussein entered court for the first time today and as Radio Free Europe reports: "As Hussein appeared for her hearing on July 30, the packed courtroom erupted into pandemonium. The reason: Hussein appeared in exactly the same green trousers she was wearing at the restaurant when she was arrested."

The trial has to be postponed until August 4th so Hussein can resign from her job at the UN and give up her immunity in order to be tried.

Fellow female journalist Amal Habbani wrote an article in support of Hussein in the Ajrass Al-Horreya newspaper and because of that, she is now facing charges of "defaming police."

Photo Credit: AFP

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blogging in Egypt a Dangerous Endeavor

Egypt is rapidly becoming one of the worst places to blog. The country has been placed on the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) "Ten Worst Countries to be a Blogger" list, alongside other well-known culprits such as China, Iran, and Cuba. And this last week alone, three bloggers were detained and held without charge.

Abdel Rahman Ayyash (Al-Ghareeb) and Magdi Saad (Yalla Mesh Mohem) were arrested at the Cairo airport on July 21, 2009 after returning from trips abroad. Ahmad Abu Khalil (Bayarek) was arrested at his home after an early morning raid by security forces. To date, Ayyash is believed to be held by security forces in Mansoura while Saad is being detained at security forces headquarters in Cairo. Khalil's whereabouts remain unknown.

These arrests occurred three weeks after one of Egypt's most famed blogger, Wael Abbas, was detained for a day at the Cairo Airport while returning from Sweden, where he had openly criticized the Egyptian government. Abbas is one of Egypt's leading bloggers and his blog, Misr Digit@l , averages a million visits a month. Abbas, an IT specialist, began blogging in 2005 but shot to blogosphere fame in 2007 when he posted video of police officers carrying out acts of torture in a police station. Abbas' blog post led to the rare arrest and conviction of the police officers involved, and inspired many Egyptians to begin blogging. But he has also encountered increasing persecution for his blogging activities.

Most recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced that the organization had been helping Tamber Mabrouk and his family after Mabrouk was singled out for denouncing his employer, Trust Chemical Industries', dumping of untreated waste water. As a result of Mabrouk's posts on his employer's practices, as well as other corruption within the Egyptian Government, Mabrouk lost his job, was forced to leave his apartment after he was threatened with eviction, and was ordered to pay a 6,000 euro fine, more than 100 times the average monthly wage in Europe. RSF has been providing financial support to Mabrouk and his family while he struggles to find new employment.

The word "blog" is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer ; also : the contents of such a site." In 2004, the word was picked as Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Year" after topping the list of most looked-up terms ,and in 2005, it was officially included in the dictionary. At it's essence, a blog, along with the multitude of free blog-hosting websites in existence today, offer the citizen journalist ample opportunity to share thoughts and information with the rest of the world. Blogs represent the best use of modern technology encouraging the free flow of expression. Any restriction imposed on blogging, and any reprimand for blogging activities, constitute an egregious violation of freedom of expression and significantly lessen the quality of a free flow of ideas worldwide.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Facebook Post in Tunisia Leads to Arrest

Social networking has come to the rescue in recent months when journalists and citizens alike have attempted to get around censors to report the news. China and Iran did their best to censor sites like Twitter and Facebook in hopes of keeping citizens from organizing and protesting, and now, Tunisia has joined the list of countries giving added importance to social networking sites.

Earlier this year, a human rights activist in Tunisia posted a message to her Facebook page about the rumored kidnappings of children for their organs. The posted statement, which merely repeated a rumor that was already circulating, lead to the woman's arrest on July 4th and an 8 month jail sentence for “disturbing public order”.

Khedija Arfaoui is a 69-year old academic and human rights activist who only found out about the charges against her when she came across the announcement in a newspaper on May 31st. According to the newspaper her trial would begin just a few days later on June 6th. She wasn't formally notified until the day before the trial was set to begin.

Reporters Without Borders says that Tunisia so far has no laws regarding internet and her conviction has no legal standing. The crime of disturbing the public order for which she was accused is punishable by 6 months to 5 years in prison. It also refers only to public places whereas Facebook is regarded as a private space.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pictures as Protest

By Katie McNish

The New York Times
last week reported on a dicey situation in Zambia, where a journalist's effort at activism backfired and landed her in jail.

Chansa Kabwela, the news editor of the Zambian daily The Post - which has been critical of the impoverished country's "corrupt" regime - was concerned about the national health care worker's strike. She was approached by a distraught man bearing photos of a gruesome incident: his wife, naked outside a local hospital where she had been denied medical attention by striking workers, giving birth to a child who died hours later. According to Ms. Kabwela, the man hoped that if The Post published the photos, more tragedies like his family's could be avoided. She and The Post's other editors decided that the images were too disturbing for publication, but felt they were important given the dire situation. On June 10, Ms. Kabwela sent copies of the photos to several women's groups and public officials, including the Vice President and Health Minister, urging them to "take quick action and end this strike.”

But, Ms. Kabwela told the Times, “the government deliberately decided to misunderstand my intention,” - to draw attention to the suffering caused by the strike - and instead dubbed the images "pornographic." On June 13, she was arrested and charged with "distributing obscene materials in order to corrupt the morals of society." She was released on bond but faces up to five years in prison.

Some have speculated that this incident has been a government response to The Post's negative editorials, though statements by both the government officials and some of women's groups that received the photos pointed only to the woman's nakedness, highlighting her lack of "privacy and dignity."

Ms. Kabwela issued an apology and the strike has since ended, but the war of words between the The Post and the Zambian government continues. Recent editorials have called President Rupiah Banda and his government's response to the incident an "abuse of power."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shadi Sadr: Activist, Journalist, and Human Rights Lawyer Arrested in Iran

The recent arrest of journalist, activist, and lawyer Shadi Sadr in Iran shows that the country still is not safe for anyone who decides to speak out against the government.

Amnesty International announced on Friday that Shadi Sadr was violently arrested amidst a wave of activist arrests made by Iranian officials in recent months. Sadr was walking along a busy road with a group of women on their way to morning prayers when men in street clothes dragged her into their car. She managed to escape--losing her headscarf and jacket in the struggle--but was recaptured and beaten with batons before being taken to an unknown location. No reason was given for the apparent arrest.

"In reality, Shadi Sadr has never endangered national security, unless the Iranian national security is inextricably based on the oppression of women," says Rochelle Terman who has worked with Sadr.

Sadr is a human rights lawyer who has done extensive work in women's rights. Until it was shut down by authorities, she ran a legal advice center for women named Raahi. She also founded the first website dedicated to the work of Iranian women's rights activists in Iran and is a member of Women's Field where she has worked on the "Stop Stoning Forever" campaign.

"This is the latest of a continuing series of high profile arrests of Iranians - students, journalists, intellectuals, political and civil society activists," said Malcolm Smart, Middle East Director for Amnesty International.

Since her illegal capture she has been held in Tehran's Evin prison and her home and office has been searched. Sadr, who has a husband and ten year old daughter, was arrested in 2007 among 33 other women brought in for conducting a peaceful protest of the unwarranted arrest of 5 other female activists.

Sadr's friend who was with her at the time of the arrest shares this account of the events:
"It was then one of the officials from the opposite side attacked her and was pulling onto her scarf. Shadi was resisting his force when the scarf came undone. Shadi again escaped. This time two other people appeared unexpectedly, one of them carrying a spiral baton. They took Shadi and beat her violently while she continued to resist them." You can read the full account on the Women's Field site here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Arrests in Iran Point to More Violence and Secrecy

Being affiliated with a big-name media outlet can add an extra layer of safety for journalist, especially when traveling in unsafe territories where governments aren't looking for added negative attention. But in Iran, having a name like Newsweek, Getty, or GlobalPost to back you up, won't keep you out of danger.

Iran isn't seeking political leverage (as North Korea seems to be doing) or targeting local and freelance journalists where baseless arrests will draw less attention (like Lindhout and Brennan, whose arrests in Somalia have gone virtually unnoticed), so the recent arrests of high profile journalists makes you wonder how bad the stories must be that they are working so hard to keep quiet.

Newsweek's Tehran correspondent Maziar Bahari has been held in Iran for almost a month with out charge in Iran. The high profile arrested has sparked international attention and as CPJ reports, 100 prominent journalists from 47 different countries (including Ted Koppel, Fareed Zakaria, and Christiane Amanpour) have signed a petition requesting his release.

GlobalPost reporter Iason Athanasiadis was held for three weeks in Tehran. He was reporting on the protests on the ground when he was arrested "in an effort to stifle my on-the-ground reporting and intimidate me," he said.

Reporters Without Borders announced today that at least eight photojournalists and cameramen have been detained in Iran for unknown reasons. According to the media watchdog, Iran has jailed more bloggers than any other country in the world. They have compiled an extensive list of jailed journalists and the reasons behind their arrests that can be found here.

Reporters Without Borders has also announced the implementation of SOS Presse, a hotline for journalists in danger that is open around the clock and where one of their officials can be immediately reached.

To date, little reason or solid evidence has been given for the arrest of the many journalists, photojournalists and cameramen, and bloggers.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

Why Haven't The Uighurs Sparked Outside Protest?

Foreign Policy asks, where is the Islamic response to the Chinese government's treatment of the Uighurs?

Denmark earned more protests for a cartoon. France is under fire for the talk of banning religious head coverings. Why hasn't the Muslim world reacted to the constant and calculated discrimination in China?

"Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been carrying out systematic policies that discriminate against Uighurs. Their language is forbidden in schools; government employees cannot have long beards or head scarves and are not allowed to pray or fast during working hours," says Foreign Policy.

Read the article in full here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New Daniel Pearl Act to Spotlight Violations of Press Freedom

The murder of Wall St. Journal reporter Daniel Pearl made headlines worldwide, but many other crimes against journalists go unreported and unnoticed. Now, with the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act that was passed by the House last week, the U.S. State Department will play a larger role in identifying crimes against journalists.

The U.S. government will now investigate and identify countries with violations of press freedom and highlight those that participate in, facilitate, or condone violations of press freedom. It will become the State Department's duty to investigate imprisonment, direct censorship, and physical attacks against journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists points out just how many violations and murders occur across all corners of the world, with most of us never finding out about them.

"How many people have heard of, say, Uma Singh, a Nepalese radio reporter and women's rights activist who was stabbed to death this year in January by about 15 unidentified assailants in her home, or of Eliseo Barrón Hernández, a Mexican newspaperman who was beaten by hooded gunmen in May in front of his family before being abducted to have his tortured corpse discovered the next day, or of Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe, a Somali radio reporter who was shot repeatedly in the head last month by unknown gunmen as he and a colleague, who was also wounded, were walking to work," writes Frank Smyth of the CPJ.

At least 532 journalists have been murdered while reporting and according to CPJ, nearly 9 out of ten of the murders get away with it.

Photo: The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New Strategy After Riots: China Controls Foreign Press By Welcoming Them

Just one month after China's Great Firewall boosted internet blockades for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, China has once again blocked social networking sites like Twitter, and has slowed internet and cell phone service in a vain attempt to keep unfiltered news from escaping the country. This in response to riots that began Sunday between two conflicting ethnic groups in western China.

But this time the government seems to know they can't keep the gory images or the staggering body count (topping 150 according to some reports) from reaching the rest of the world. For a country about to celebrate its 60th year of communism, internet censorship comes as no surprise, but unlike Iran's recent blanket censorship and ban on reporters during the post-election protests, China is so far welcoming foreign journalists.

On top of creating a press center and offering discounted hotel rooms, journalists were invited to tour Urumqi--the capitol of the western Xinjiang region where the riots originated--including visits to the hospitals treating over 1,000 wounded Han Chinese and Uighur protesters.

"Journalists are being taken by the govn't around the hospitals, and now to an area full of burned out Han shops," the Daily Telegraph's Malcolm Moore wrote on Twitter.

Twitter has made a name for itself due in part to its use as a runaround against censors everywhere from Moldova to Iran. This site is just one of the many that has made it impossible to seal information inside a city as China has tried to do both with the recent Tiananmen anniversary and with the Tibet protests last year.

With last month's backlash and embarrassing
videos of plain-clothed guards trying to block reporters with opened umbrellas, perhaps China sees this as the better way to take control of the press--and it is hard criticize them for unrolling the welcome mat, no matter their intentions.

Knowing full well that the journalists are being used as pawns of government propaganda, one can only assume that they will look past what they are being spoon fed. And that presence and ability to see firsthand and report as they please can only be seen as a small victory for freedom of the press.

The riots began on Sunday as a peaceful protest by the Uighur, a group of Muslim Chinese, for the alleged 25 Uighur factory workers that were killed in southern China. State media reported only two deaths in the incident and the disparity coupled with with wild rumors lead to increasing tensions. Accusations of unreported (and often untrue) violence from both the Uighur and the Han Chinese has continue to fuel the rage.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If You Were Captured Abroad Would You Want it Kept Secret?

Many were shocked when the news broke that New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped after seven months in captivity in Pakistan. The details of his escape--including broken limbs and Taliban bribes --were notable in themselves, but most surprising was that hardly anyone knew about the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist locked away with Pakistani terrorists. In all the news of Roxana Saberi, Ling and Lee, and sadly, many more, where was Rohde's media blitz?

As the story unraveled that the New York Times orchestrated a media blackout, convincing other news outlets and even Wikipedia not to cover the story in the interest of Rohde's safety, the heated debate over self-censorship in the press began. And the controversy continues even as Rohde returned to work yesterday, to "perhaps the most sustained ovation ever heard in the paper’s newsroom" according to The Times and "resounding applause" as The Times' Tim O'Brian puts it on Twitter.

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The Times said that it was after consultation with experts in kidnapping cases, government officials, and Rohde's family that they decided that "going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages."

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed about the incident on WowOWow said although she would like to hear Rohde's thoughts on the controversy, she would want the world to know if something similar happened to her. "If I’m kidnapped I want you, personally, to lead the charge and make sure people know about it," Amanpour said interviewer Lesley Stahl.

When reporter Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, the Monitor reports it was "criticized in some quarters for seeking a brief news blackout." "That effort ended after about two days, with major news outlets saying they could not continue to sit on a significant story," writes Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy. Carroll was eventually freed despite media attention, but for many (myself included) the highly publicized capture and eventual murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 remains heavy in our minds and the desire to avoid another such tragedy seems to be influencing the decision to self-censor.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and Matthew Ingram of the Nieman Journalism Lab both came out strongly against The Times' media blackout, attracting much attention and criticism for questioning tactics that might have saved a man's life. But there are two points that are hard to overlook. One is that Rohde escaped. He wasn't rescued or released, he managed to evade his captors. And two is that even Rohde himself has hinted that his captors were merely looking for money, not political gain or to make an example of him.

As Ingram puts it, "the coverup has made things harder not just for future kidnapping victims such as Rohde, but for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets as a whole."

It may seem counterintuitive to critique the handling of the situation now that Rohde is safely back on American soil, but if you were kidnapped abroad, would you want your story told or kept a secret?

Photo Credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times