When CBS Senior International Correspondent Lara Logan met Iraqi state TV channel cameraman Jehad Ali (pictured) in Iraq in 2007, he had just been shot by a group of militants affiliated with al-Qaeda. Logan wanted to help.
Logan approached the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and before long, Ali was in the U.S. to have rehabilitation surgery on his leg. CPJ provided "not only financial support but also a much-needed moral pillar,” Ali wrote recently in a CPJ article.
"We worked with Lara to raise some funds and brought [Ali] to the United States," said Joel Simon, Executive Director of CPJ. With his health "almost back to 100 percent," Ali left the U.S. for Beirut, Lebanon, last month, where he will search for a job opportunity as a TV cameraman.
For 30 years, since a group of U.S. foreign correspondents created CPJ, the organization has helped countless journalists like Ali -- particularly those who work in dangerous and repressive environments, according to Simon. “We want to make sure journalists around the world are able to work freely and without fear,” he told IJNet last week. The CPJ Web site includes up-to-date information on cases of journalists affected by oppression or harassment across the world.
IJNet recently sat down with Simon to discuss CPJ's work, his views regarding journalists' safety and the journalism environment at the start of 2010.
IJNet: What sort of difficulties journalists face these days?
Simon: I think the situation for journalists has become more difficult virtually everywhere. If you're working in a place where you may not be confronting safety issues, you may be facing an economic environment which makes journalism more difficult. But it's particularly precarious for journalists where doing basic reporting can get you killed or thrown in jail. One hundred fifty journalists and media workers have died covering the conflict in Iraq. Luckily the number has fallen in the last two years, but the overall toll is unprecedented. And today there are many countries around the world that are exceedingly dangerous for the press. In countries like Mexico and Russia -- these are countries where day in and day out journalists face extraordinary risks and where journalists are dying.
Q: Can you tell us about the means your organization uses to reach out to these journalists?
A: CPJ is made up of journalists. We think like journalists, we act like journalists. When we hear about an attack against journalists, we respond like journalists. We want to know the facts. We want to document. We want to know the specifics. We don't want to jump to conclusions so we have contacts all over the world. We have sources, like any good reporter. We also have people on the ground in some places, so we report on these cases and we want to make sure that if we are going to be out there talking about it that we know the facts. And so that's the first step. Once we have that information there are things we can do to draw attention. First, we put out press releases, we reach out to journalists, we try to generate press and attention in the media, but we also try to make contact directly with governments to let them know our concerns. We also do special reports, detailed reports documenting patterns of abuses. We travel to these countries. We meet with government representatives. We also provide assistance to journalists, journalists who had to flee their countries because of persecution and have had to settle elsewhere.
We have a series of activities, but all with a single purpose and a single goal, which is that we want to protect journalists, we want to defend journalists and we want to allow them to do their jobs without having to fear being killed or being put in jail.
Q: How can journalists contact you?
A: Journalists are welcome to contact us directly. You can go to our website (www.cpj.org), there is contact information there. Someone on our staff probably speaks the language that you speak.
We also hear [about] a lot of cases because journalists get in touch with their local press freedom organization in their country and in turn, they contact us and say, there is a threat against one of our colleagues, we wish you would help. We also actively monitor the press, monitor websites, we actively investigate and document attacks against journalist all over the world. So, journalists who are threatened should contact us, but we may be contacting you.
Q: Can you speak about the situation currently facing journalists in Haiti?
A: We have a long relationship with Haitian journalists. Over the last few days, we have been able to contact some of them. Every one of them has a personal horror story. Their house collapsed, some of them lost family, some of them didn't but everyone was affected. What was really terrible was that they are essentially unable to work because their personal circumstances are so unsettled that they just can't work and the media infrastructure, these radio stations, and transmitters have been damaged. Information can be life-saving in an environment where people don't know how to get food, people don't know where to go get medical help, there are a lot of rumors going around. So at this time when Haitians desperately need information, unfortunately the press is not functioning.
Q: What is your advice to journalists covering disaster areas?
A: There are so many challenges when you cover situations like this earthquake in Haiti. Journalists have the real responsibility if you are going to a situation like that to make sure that you have the logistical supplies necessary to do your job. You certainly don't want to become a burden. You are using every resource there. Gasoline or water or food is scarce and if you are going in there, you better make sure you have the resources you need to do your job and that’s a big responsibility when you're working in a disaster zone. I think it’s really important that journalists are there, obviously.
The other bit of advice is, whenever you are in a situation like that, particularly in Haiti when the government presence is extremely limited, there is not public security at all. People are desperate. You put those things together and an environment that seems safe at one minute can become very dangerous the next. We haven't seen incidents yet involving journalists that I am aware of, but it's possible that we will. Journalists focusing on that type of environment, they tend to focus on issues in terms of security, will they have enough food, enough water, do they have shelter. But you also have to be careful about your own security as well. That's the kind of thing you have to pay attention to in this kind of environment.
Q: How important is having an international media presence in Haiti?
A: I really hope the Haitian media is up and running quickly because they have no information [or] very little information, but the presence of the international media is also vital. It's shining light on shortcomings. It's getting international attention. It’s generating more resources, more attention that is so desperately needed. I’ve seen some outstanding reporting. Some is emotional but that's inevitable when you have a situation like this. Who cannot respond to what they are seeing there?
Q: What is the big picture of the situation facing journalists this year?
A: The big picture is this: every year, CPJ releases a census of journalists in prison around the world and this year, half of the 136 journalists in jail worked online. The number of freelancers in prison around the world has doubled. Online and freelance, those are growing categories and they're probably going to continue to grow. One reason is that more and more journalism is done online. That's just the nature of journalism in this day and age. The other is that online journalists who often work independently are very difficult to control. So governments, who might be able to use advertising, put pressure on the printing presses and broadcast frequencies and other strategies to intimidate institutional media. This kind of media is becoming more and more influential and is having more and more of an impact on the population and the people to organize politically. That's the dynamic we see in Iran where more and more of the journalists being rounded up work online.
Our view, no matter what kind of journalism you do, whether it's print, broadcast, online journalism, it's all being doing online, it's all converging online. No matter what kind of journalism you do, you have a stake in keeping the internet free as a medium for critical journalism. CPJ also has a role in defending the media, defending the individual journalists who are persecuted for their online work, but also defending the medium itself and ensuring that the internet remains a viable, open and free medium for the dissemination of news and information.
To learn more about CPJ, visit www.cpj.org.
Photo courtesy of Al-Iraqiya