The War on Those Bearing Witness, Colltalers
Another war, another renewed threat to the journalism profession. News that reporters covering the Crimean conflict got beaten up last Friday, by Russian militiamen supporting the takeover of the Sevastopol Ukrainian military base, are just the latest of a rising and deeply disturbing trend.
In fact, news scribblers who take chances at trenches of what’s happening to reveal what otherwise no one would ever know, have been under siege as much as the multiplication of armed confrontations around the world seem to be reaching numbing levels of carnage and complexity.
There’s no need to place the plight of journalists above that of those caught in the crossfire, the refugees, the children, even those who signed up to bear a weapon and go after the ‘enemies of their country,’ as any conflict is frequently sold to those who enlist. But even if misery for all involved goes on, regardless whether there’s someone to report it or not, public awareness is arguably the most needed step to be taken in order to stop it.
In other words, it’s hard to feel sympathy for those massacred in the name of who knows what’s today’s word of order, if we don’t know who they are, how they’re getting crushed and, as it’s often the case, how their reaction to their predicament resembles one’s one family, son and daughter.
Just to extend the Russian fodder, that particular country and region has been rife with threats lately not just to journalists but to, you guessed it, gays, as the recent Sochi games offered an unvarnished look into the ongoing persecution of people who don’t fit the official behavioral mold.
The analogy between gays, for what it’s perceived as a challenge to so-called ‘family values’ (which are never shy of enforcing prejudice and genocide, when it comes down to it) and reporters, for what they ‘shouldn’t’ be reporting, is not without purpose. Both groups face daily threats of violence and mortal danger only on the account of their mere existence, a frightening notion that should put on the highest alert the whole society.
We could go on and on about the witch hunt against gays and basic freedom of expression in far reaching regions of the world, Africa being the most blatant example of a newly minted institutionalized persecution against people for their sexual choices, and against those who dare to report it.
But the stinging reality is that it’s in contemporary U.S. that one finds some of the most glaring attempts at curbing constitutionally-sanctioned press freedom, with a shameful record in increased prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, threaten by lengthy jail sentences and public scolding.
Such threats find resonance only in Nazi Germany and other past or present totalitarian societies, or fictional nightmarish views of the future, such as George Orwell’s. But for as much as 1984 offers us a glimpse of how such societies operate, it doesn’t come close to what’s actually happening.
When even celebrity anchors wonder aloud whether colleagues should face jail terms for their reporting, we know we’re much farther than good ol’ George could’ve possibly conceived. Then again, who could’ve predicted that the Obama administration would lead the charge against journalists?
We’re not making this up: this administration has prosecuted, or is trying to, more news professionals and whistleblowers than all the previous ones combined, despite campaign promises renewed by the president during his reelection, according to most organizations dedicated to the category.
From the Committee to Protect Journalists to Reporters Without Borders to the International Federation of Journalists and many others, even government-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, such groups have all condemned the administration for its harsh treatment of the press.
But one could argue that, at the same time, the gay rights movement has staged unprecedented victories in the past few years in this country, and that’s admirable not just to gays and so-called sexual minorities but to society at large, religious right intolerance and hatred notwithstanding.
One doesn’t cover up for the other, though, and in large parts of the globe, minorities depend on the press ability to report freely, which grant it, it rarely does. Whereas in richer societies the constrains are economic and political, in impoverished nations, the butt of a gun speaks louder.
The revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA widespread spying on common Americans and foreign governments, besides a whole Pandora Box of misdeeds and downright violations in the name of public safety, have been a negative factor not just to Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that brought them to light, but to every investigative reporter and the privacy of their sources, which may be now deeply compromised.
The CPJ committee, which issues reports on the state of the profession around the world, has dedicated a whole two-page account on the impact of NSA revelations on the exercise of journalism and the only way reporters can speak true to power: constitutional protection to their sources.
Thus, it’s not just Egypt, with its chilly video of Al-Jazeera journalists being interrogated, or wholesale attempts against press freedom in Somalia, Cameroon, Mexico, Colombia and the Brazilian Amazon, the governments preventing us from knowing what’s really going on with their charges.
It’s also the U.S., with its considerable influence on an already biased media establishment, lately turned, in large part, into a mouthpiece for government views. We haven’t come that long of a way since the Bush administration characterized Al-Jazeera as an aid to terrorist groups, eh?
The recent proliferation of misleading reports on the war in Ukraine and the street protests in Venezuela are also part of a general pattern of inseminating misinformation, which is sold as the truth, in order to establish yet another layer of control over dissent and independence of opinion.
As the situation on the ground evolves in Ukraine, the U.N. Security Council held talks last week on ways to increase the safety of journalists covering the conflict. The RWB group is pushing for it to turn attacks against reporters into war crimes, liable to prosecution in the court of law.
It may or may not be enough. Taking a page of the gay rights movement book, only public pressure can reverse the trend, and that’s where such reversal stands its best shot, as common citizens start to realize that their basic rights are being threaten too, along with those who reported them.
Without that, we’re doomed to become a society of yay sayers, to whom whatever is relevant to the powerful is what we’ll be told, while behind the curtains, the insidious finger pointing without proof and trial-less sentencing will be leveled against dissenters without us knowing anything about.
We couldn’t finish without acknowledging our own bias towards the profession of journalism. While we’ve never been threaten for exercising it, we can still denounce the attempts to curb the freedom of others to do it, and the assumption that war journalists are fair game to the warring parties.
For as much as we’re forever grateful to the personal sacrifice of non-journalists, such as Pvt. Chelsea Manning and Snowden, who dared to report what they witnessed just like a reporter is supposed to do, we can never stopped being vigilant against further threats to the profession in general.
Press freedom is not just a tenet of democracy in name and written laws only; it’s also a condition for which all other individual liberties can be exercised. It’s foolish and reckless to underestimate the plight of those covering armed conflicts as being something that happens to ‘them’ only.
Many say that what brought the end of the Vietnam war was a confluence of several civic groups, rights organizations, and ‘minorities’ working in tandem towards peace. But it was also the daily deluge of carnage coming to American homes via TV images beamed by news reporters.
It’s only when Mr. and Ms. Smith saw their son being slaughtered on camera in the evening news that the mobilization against the war gained momentum and critical mass. That can’t happened anymore by how wars are covered these days. So another way has to be found.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that then, as now, some decided to bear witness to the newest ways we find to annihilate each other. Without those, there’s only government rhetoric telling us how well the surge is progressing, so we can go back to our dinner and a movie routine.
Let’s not go back to our dinner and a movie routine. Let’s make sure those who attempt to silence reporters are treated as the war criminals they are. And let’s not fall into the fallacy that what we now know as evening news is even news anymore. You’d better not Belieber. Short of an end to all wars, or safe haven for millions of refugees around the globe, we owe to ourselves to fight for freedom and safety of the press. Have a great one. WC