Islamic extremist fighters forced a freelance reporter, James Foley, to read propaganda celebrating their cause, and then beheaded him in a Middle Eastern desert. Another American journalist is next, they warned. In Iran, Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post, was snatched by men waving an arrest warrant in late July. He has not been heard from since. In Afghanistan, Matthew Rosenberg, a reporter for The New York Times, was ordered expelled from the country because government officials did not like his stories.
In America, journalists have been hit with tear gas and held by the police, with little explanation, while covering protests in Ferguson, Mo. At the Justice Department, prosecutors have aggressively prosecuted leaks to journalists and employed eavesdropping techniques that have chilled the relationship between reporters and their sources.
In a series of interviews on Wednesday, reporters, editors and those who monitor the freedom of the press described a harsh environment for reporters both at home and abroad, complicated by changes in the way that journalists work, and a change in the way they are viewed by both governments, and the public.
Though journalism has always been challenging and sometimes dangerous, said Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, there is little question that currently “people who are in authority have a preference for journalists not being witness to wrongdoing.” If reporters face imprisonment or death for “simply doing the job of reporting,” he said, “it is incredibly difficult to do that kind of work.”
In recent years, the changing nature of war, with hazy battle lines, shifting alliances and stateless antagonists, has been matched with a new breed of reporter, many of whom, like Mr. Foley, operate without the backing of a traditional news organization. Conflict reporting, said Philip S. Balboni, the president and chief executive of GlobalPost, one of the outlets that had published Mr. Foley’s work, seemed to grow progressively more dangerous with the war in Libya that began in 2010. That war, like others that have followed in Syria and Iraq, had “no front lines and no established players.” The seasoned war photographers Chris Hondros, of Getty Images, and Tim Hetherington, of Vanity Fair, were among those killed there.
In remarks on Wednesday, President Obama condemned those who had killed Mr. Foley, and vowed that they would be brought to justice. “The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley,” he said.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 32 journalists, including Mr. Foley, have been killed so far in 2014, compared with 70 in 2013 and 74 in 2012. But the committee’s deputy director, Robert Mahoney, noted that in 2013, at least 65 journalists went missing, more than twice as many as in the preceding two years combined. More journalists are also being imprisoned, he said, in places like in Egypt where 13 are currently in jail.
Foreign journalists were initially welcomed in Syria. But the conflict soon turned, and they began to be seen as interlopers, then as targets. At least 69 other journalists have been killed since the beginning of the conflict there in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, the committee said. More than 80 have been kidnapped, and about 20 remain in captivity, the group said, though precise numbers are hard to pin down because many incidents go unpublicized.
Many of those taken captive have been freelance journalists hoping to carve out careers by reporting where others had feared to tread. Mr. Foley, 40, was among them. He had filed stories from the Middle East’s most deadly conflicts for Global Post, Agence France-Presse and others, and had previously been kidnapped in Libya. In a video, he described hostile soldiers coming toward him in that country. “I didn’t want to be the guy who said ‘let’s turn around,’ ” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
He was taken in Syria on Nov. 22, 2012, with several other Americans whose families have asked that their names not be revealed.
The militant fighters that beheaded Mr. Foley in the video also threatened to kill Steven Sotloff, another American freelance reporter who had been published in Time magazine among others. In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, confirmed that Mr. Sotloff’s family lived in her Miami district, and that she had met with them and “contacted the relevant agencies, departments and even organizations with connections on the ground in Syria to try to get answers.”
“It’s very clear that journalists are regarded as the enemy, especially by ISIS” said Mr. Mahoney, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “What you have in parts of the Middle East is a politicized Islam and against that journalists have very little defense.”
Mr. Baron said that The Post now uses only contracted freelancers, so it can provide them the same equipment, security and communications technology that staff reporters get.
Rebel groups, said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and former managing editor of The Washington Post, no longer need journalists to broadcast their stories. Now they can reach their audiences directly online, he said. Even the Taliban, which used to ban cameras, have their own video production studio. In that context, reporters are viewed less as neutral observers and more as strategic assets that can provide leverage in trying to achieve goals.
On the ground in Ferguson, said Matt Pearce, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times who has been covering the story for nine days, reporters are targets both for the police, and for some protesters who are keen that reporters show events that serve their cause, rather than just showing violence and looting.
As the story escalated, he said, he noticed “a lot more younger-looking journalists, freelance journalists out here; it doesn’t look like they’re wearing press badges, or brightly colored clothing.”
“A lot of them just look like demonstrators,” Mr. Pearce said, which complicated the situation. The police were not always sure that they were journalists, and the protesters eyed them with suspicion.
But even experienced reporters encountered difficulty. Mr. Baron cited Wesley Lowery, who was detained by police for “sitting in a McDonald’s, charging his smartphone,” Mr. Baron said.
“I think that that betrays a lack of understanding on the part of law enforcement about the rights of journalists,” Mr. Baron said. “It’s disturbing to see this happening in our country.”
An earlier version of this article overstated what is known about James Foley’s execution. It is not clear where he died, and although ISIS militants move freely in parts of Iraq, there is no available evidence to suggest that that is where he was killed.
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(via NY Times)