On Tuesday, American photojournalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS terrorists.
On Tuesday, two more journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, bringing the total to 15. (As of Wednesday morning, another journalist’s arrest was reported, making it 16.)
The beheading of Foley has brought back memories of a similar incident 12 years ago, the beheading of American journalist, Daniel Pearl. I was only a senior in high school when Pearl disappeared, his death occurring mere months after 9/11. At the time, my driving force in life was to become a journalist. Twelve years later, I’ve made a series of choices that led me away from journalism and to the non-profit world, but the field of journalism is still dear to my heart.
Between the Bush and Obama administrations, wars abroad, international conflicts, the demise of print media and the expansion of corporate media, the past decade has seen reporters fighting a war on several fronts.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
On Saturday, August 9, a young black man, Michael Brown, is killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a town outside St. Louis. In reaction to his death, looting and protests start to take place. On Monday, Ferguson police use tear gas against protestors. Incidents between the police and protestors have continued for the past week.
As events unfolded, reporters began arriving in town to cover the situation. Sixteen reporters have been arrested, others have been tear gassed, or threatened by police and protestors alike. As The Washington Post reported, authorities in Ferguson established a media zone on West Florissant Avenue. The area was set up to allow journalists to view Ferguson police’s response to protestors. Authorities would provide news updates. Reporters were told they risked arrest if they left the area. However, journalists quickly realized that the news updates were full of incorrect information and they couldn’t see much from the restricted area.
However, in venturing out into the streets on their own, reporters face the risk of being unwelcome participants in the events by both the police and the protestors. Some have objected to reporters’ involvement in the events on the ground, saying they are making the story about them, and not about the real issues in Ferguson: police brutality, racial profiling and the rise of police militarization.
Wesley Lowery, The Washington Post reporter who was one of the first journalists to be arrested in Ferguson, reported on Tuesday evening that the Ferguson police had entered the media pen with weapons drawn and aimed as they tried to arrest a teenager who had run in that direction.
On Tuesday, Lowery tweeted, “No journalist—mainstream media, conservative media, liberal media, etc.–should be getting arrested for doing their job.”
“Journalism is not a crime, but murdering a journalist should be a war crime.”
While Ferguson is a recent development, many journalists have spent the last decade traveling abroad and putting their lives on the line to cover wars and conflicts across the globe. Many are killed, such as Marie Colvin and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington. Many others disappear and are kidnapped, as was the case with Foley and his counterpart in the video, Steven Joel Soltoff, a journalist who has written for TIME.
In 2011, Foley and two other journalists were captured and jailed in Libya. His friend, photojournalist, Anton Hammerl, was killed. When Foley was released six weeks later, he helped raise money for Hammerl’s memorial fund. In a video for The Boston Globe, Foley said he didn’t want to make the story about himself, saying he didn’t want to be “that guy who got captured in 2011.”
Foley’s colleagues and friends remembered him as a journalist who was willing to go where no one else would. He was characterized as someone who believed that society needs reporters who will bear witness.
Although Foley’s death was shocking, it was almost more disturbing that few Americans, besides those who knew him and fellow journalists, were not aware that Foley was missing. More than likely, they are also not aware of journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in 2012. Syria is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. Many have disappeared and in the past three years, at least 60 have been killed.
In a November 2013 article in The Atlantic, David Rodhe cited that of the 30 cases of missing journalists in Syria, the families of a dozen requested that the abductions be kept secret. In the past, media blackouts about journalist kidnappings have been recommended by security experts and law enforcement officials in hopes the victims can be found or terms reached with the kidnappers. If there is publicity surrounding the journalist’s disappearance, it can inflate the kidnappers’ ransom expectations.
Since many journalists are freelancers, they don’t have large media companies behind them who will spend money or time working on their release. Foley was an exception. Although he was a freelancer for GlobalPost, an international news service, the chief executive Philip S. Balboni, announced on Wednesday that the news service hired an international firm to investigate shortly after Foley disappeared. Balboni said they spent millions trying to get the reporter returned to U.S. soil safely.
It was also reported that the U.S. government spent time and effort looking for Foley and the other captured journalists. The New York Times reported that Obama had approved a mission for commandos to fly into Syria to try and rescue the journalists, but when they landed, the reporters weren’t there.
But it’s not just Syria where reporters are disappearing. Iran is detaining Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a freelance journalist.
As Michael Eaves, a sports journalist for Al Jazeera America, tweeted after Foley’s death, “Journalism is not a crime, but murdering a journalist should be a war crime.”
“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press”
So what do Ferguson, Missouri and international conflicts like Syria have in common? Whether journalists are covering wars at home or abroad, they are constantly fighting a war and fighting to do their jobs.
As journalist Amy Goodman said in a 2005 interview, journalism is the only profession protected by the Constitution. “Journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on government,” Goodman said. “We’re supposed to be holding those in power accountable.”
Many countries do not allow freedom of the press, and in America, where it is one of the five freedoms protected in the First Amendment, it is often taken for granted, questioned, or ignored.
The Obama administration has been one of the worst enemies of freedom of the press in decades. In the fall of 2013, The Committee to Protect Journalists published a review of press freedoms under the Obama administration. The review stated that the administration’s anti-leak policy has intimidated potential sources for U.S. reporters.
Another example of Obama’s clamp down on reporters is the James Risen case. The New York Times reporter published a book in 2006, State of War, a chapter of which contained information on a classified CIA mission. Risen has refused to give up the name of his source, stating he would rather go to jail. CIA official Jeffrey Sterling is the suspected source and is charged with leaking information under the Espionage Act.
Many courts have a common law “reporter’s privilege” which protects journalists from having to testify about the identity of their sources. On July 19, the Fourth Circuit ignored this common law and the First Amendment and ruled that Risen has to reveal his source.
Risen submitted a petition to the Supreme Court to reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision, which was denied.
“The Justice Department and the Obama administration are the ones who turned this really into a fundamental fight over press freedom in their appeal to the Fourth Circuit,” Risen was quoted in an August 14 Politico article. “I’m happy to carry on the fight, but it wasn’t really me who started it.”
Risen is continuing to refuse to testify and several press freedom organizations, such as the Center for Media and Democracy, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, have joined him in the fight.
But even with Risen facing jail time, it feels like the war against journalists is mostly being ignored.
Imagine Ferguson, Missouri without any reporters present. How would we know about the police brutality occurring and without reporters there, would the police’s actions be more violent? How would we know about any government actions without reporters being there to question government officials and find out what’s really going on? How would we know what is going on abroad—Iraq, Syria, Gaza—without reporters being willing to risk their lives and cover the stories on the ground?
Americans need to wake up. One of the pillars of our democracy is being threatened: freedom of the press.
Without it, there is only silence.