On election day in the U.S., where press freedom is supposed to be the strongest cornerstone of that democracy – by being a consistent check on American government excesses, failures or deception – the group, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) published a story about Syria that follows a disturbing, truly dangerous pattern.
When a people revolt, protest or seriously challenge those in ‘government’, just about the first thing to go in many countries is any semblance of freedom of the press. In so many places around the world, the press isn’t truly free before an internal conflict and resultant government repression. But, when normal press coverage – and foreign press coverage – is sharply constrained, the stories that get out typically aren’t as attention-getting in scope; they don’t reach the same numbers of people. Stories ‘behind’ the pictures are even more difficult to tell.
It’s happening in Syria; it happened in Iran during the Green Revolution. It happens, but not by accident.
Press censorship, sadly, works.
The pictures and facts we do see from Syria and in other cases typically come from extraordinarily brave freelance journalists, groups formed with a cadre of ‘netizens’ to transmit truths, and/or local residents who become correspondents in their own right, using smart phone pictures, videos and social media. They do amazing work, but they do it at their own peril, or the peril of their families and friends. Intimidation of the press is an outrageous but strategic tactic. And it gets worse than that.
RWB’s piece on November 6th catalogued what it said were a series of cases in Syria involving journalists who disappeared, were arrested, were reportedly injured or tortured while in custody, or summoned by the government to explain their reporting.
It is not a surprise yet it should still shock. If the most courageous truth-seekers and truth-speakers are herded up, threatened, muffled, attacked, even killed – the damage is incalculable. Governments who do this often go after the very best, the very bravest.
In 2012 alone, the Reporters Without Borders barometer says so far 54 journalists and 39 citizen journalists have been killed, and 157 journalists and 132 citizen journalists imprisoned.
The group says that every year, on average, some 500 journalists are arrested, 1000 are assaulted or threatened, and more than 500 media outlets are censored. This doesn’t even count the instances a country pulls the plug on certain websites or the internet entirely, which is becoming all too common and all too effective. More secrecy… in turn, allows for more subjugation.
Freedom thrives when the lens is bright and sustained, when words from witnesses recount events. Freedom thrives when the people of a given nation or community see exactly what is happening, and so does everyone else ten thousand miles away. Where there can be no dispute, no spin, and no senseless explanations for what’s occurred.
When the curtain is pulled down to any extent on the facts, rest assured: that means indefensible things are happening… the kinds of things leaders don’t want out. The steps taken are well documented throughout history, and again now in Syria.
Thankfully, there are so many advocates who work to push that closed curtain back up in every way they can. Take note, at this very moment, of the 23 in 23 initiative created by IFEX, the global network of organizations committed to defending and promoting the right to freedom of expression. On its website every day until 23 November, this coming Friday, the International Day to End Impunity Campaign is featuring a photographic image and brief story on an individual who has been threatened, attacked or worse for expressing themselves.
IFEX asks you to “Read their stories. Take action. Help end impunity.”
The International Day to End Impunity campaign was launched almost exactly one year ago, on 23 November 2011, to mark the anniversary of the 2009 Ampatuan massacre in the Philippines, when 32 journalists and media workers were murdered.
This vital movement is growing; it needs people from across the world to get involved – to try to prevent even one more death. Publicizing individual cases humanizes this struggle, and in the end freedom of expression is all about one voice after another voice after another voice. They all add up.
All of us should stand up and fight for journalism’s freedom to report, for an individual’s right to free expression. Stories and commentary on what’s really happening save lives.
In a war of any kind, the truth needs to be free, because it can set a populace free.
The chroniclers need support and attention, as Reporters Without Borders, IFEX and many other fine press monitoring, protection and advocacy organizations offer.
It is incredibly hard to experience significant freedom if the only people who know what’s happening on the ground are the victims (and the violent perpetrators, trying to cover it up). So often, in Syria this last year and in scores of other countries year-round, the victims can’t speak out effectively – or at all.