Newsonomics: “Rosewater,” Cascading Censorship and Press Freedom
I remember the early summer day in Moscow well. I had one day to myself to explore a bit of the city after conducting a two-day workshop for Russian regional publishers. By late afternoon, I was ready to return to the hotel and prepare for the next morning’s flight home. I braved the Moscow Metro, knowing that a single line could bring me close to the hotel without transfer. The subway offered little English and I hoped my matching up of the Cyrillic station name on my notes and on the train would work.
It almost did, taking me close to the Tatiana Hotel, at 11, Stremyanniy Pereulok. While I splurged for an exorbitantly priced Russia data plan, Google Maps failed to locate me or my destination. Wandering the streets, looking for familiar buildings, I happened upon a beacon of hope — a Western-looking coffee cafe. I ordered and then asked for help. Two women behind the counter tried their best to figure out where the Tatiana might be, took their best guess, and then patiently and broadly gestured out a route. Believing I had the right direction in mind, I thanked them for their generous help and ventured out.
I never thought the sight of the tattered Tatiana would be so welcome, after 45 more minutes of wanderings. Heading upstairs past the still Soviet-styled “reception” area, as unwelcoming as it had been when I checked in three days earlier, I figured I could relax a little, pack up, and have a good sleep for the long flight home. Opening the door, I felt off balance.Something wasn’t right; things weren’t what they should be. In my growing uneasiness, I wondered whether I should quickly close the door or leave it open.
I put on every light in the room, and then checked it out. Almost everything in the room had been moved. Suitcases from one part of the room to another, their contents mixed and matched, and then hung, randomly, from hangers around the room. Toiletries taken out and proudly displayed on the desk, without order or reason. The contents of my computer bag stacked here and there, again seemingly randomly. Nothing was missing, except my sense of well being. The message was clear: “We’re here, and we’re watching.”
First published at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab
What had I done to bear messing a bit with me?
My sessions had been arranged by an international group bent on improving civic, and civil, society, through press and small business community-building. The experience of my two-day workshop had been both heartfelt and hilarious. These Russian publishers of newspapers and dailies didn’t care much about the tolls of digital disruption, my core area. What they really wanted to know, like publishers everywhere, was how to make money. So I role-played ad selling and buying — all through translation. We had some learning and some laughs. In the bar after day one, we talked more about the perils of publishing in Russia: “Competing” dailies, financed wholly by the government. All their newsstand editions scooped up within hours by someone taking them in bulk. Pressures, most indirect, to tow the government line.
My hotel experience gave me a tiny chill. As we approach 2015, there’s a big chill bearing down on almost every continent. The press — weakened by its own business bad fortunes — is seeing an unprecedented level of challenge. The easy number to repeat is this one: 54 journalists killed in 2014. In the raw numbers of dead, imprisoned and exiled we see a decade-long trend. Just Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual tally: 220 journalists jailed this year for doing their jobs. It’s the third year in a row in which more than 200 have been tossed in the hole; until 2012, no more than 179 had met that fate in a year.
It’s not just the numbers that tell the story here. The pressures on journalists have multiplied, with the digital revolution creating some of those in unpredictable ways.
Is 2014 an historically tough time for journalists?
“This is the worst time ever for journalists,” simply states Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ, whose new book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom was published in November, with an excerpt (“What’s the Difference Between Journalism and Activism”) available in Nieman Reports.
Why is our era tougher? The toll in those killed, imprisoned, and exiled reflect two big trends, says Simon.
First, digital technology — in everything from reporting tools to greater mobility to instantaneous, massive mobile/social distribution — has democratized the craft. That’s produced a “greater mix of front-line news gatherers,” says Simon.
Second, “journalists are much less powerful than the institutions they cover.” He makes the point that pre-digital information monopolies served as a heartier counterweight to government authority. Now those authorities have bolstered their capacities of repression and suppression, aided both by technology and their scared populaces too often more concerned with “security” than public and press rights. The sad but largely invisible truth is that as news businesses have weakened financially, their wherewithal to take on costly legal battles is constrained. Further, the press’ institutional clout — sometimes used poorly to be sure, but also one that has served as a bulwark against various press chills — is weaker than it’s ever been.
Further, we can count on one hand the number of major publishers who have put the resources into covering the fundamental tradeoffs of security and openness. We’ve yet to fully understand the impact and deeper capabilities behind the Snowden revelations of massive government intrusion into its citizens’ (and the press’) lives; financial constraints mean that just a few dozen deeply experienced journalists can be paid to track the security story. That’s one reason a site like The Intercept, despite its organizational stumbles, serves an important role.
It is indeed getting worse, and it’s a season for all of us concerned about the future of news media to stop and consider the toll, the danger, and the chilling impact on our craft and the public’s need to know. It’s great to concern ourselves with the latest news tech wizardry and the holy grail search for sustainable business models. There’s a time, though, to pause — and provide even small help — to those plying the basic craft around the troubled world. They do that sometimes with social media magic, but sometimes with an old-fashioned Nikon.
Jon Stewart, the country’s best media critic, shown a light on one edge of press crackdown, in his movie Rosewater. It often takes the story of a single person to tell that of thousands, and the imprisonment of Maziar Bahari did that. It’s done only minor box office of $3 million so far, unfortunately, but Stewart knew it wouldn’t be a blockbuster: He, too, understands the connection between the economic decline of the press and the new value that freelance, stringing journalists bring to their own nations and the wider world. “As larger news organizations cut back in infrastructure, you have more of these people freelancing, getting the stories you can’t get anywhere else,” he noted at a premiere.
Those freelancers are perhaps the people most at risk, as the murder of Global Post’s James Foley and others remind us too often. Then there are increasing pressures brought on full-time in-country journalists (with names like Mexico’s Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz, India’s Andhra Prabha, and Somalia’s Yusuf Ahmed Abuka, all killed this year). Certainly Western journalists are part of the toll, from the killing of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl to the current imprisonment of The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian. We can distinguish among these three kinds of journalists, here, though I’m not sure the differences are as important as their commonality.
The deaths and imprisonments are measurable. Lethal crackdowns can be reported, though they quickly passes from public view. Censorship, its evil cousin, remains far more elusive, and increasingly devious. It’s a kind of censorship that isn’t just creeping into new geographies — it’s cascading, as one authoritarian leader borrows tricks from another. Sandy Rowe, who retired as editor of the Oregonian in 2009, after a distinguished career in the business, now serves as chair of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She and Joel Simon, along with 10 others, journeyed to Istanbul in October, CPJ’s third visit in two years to argue for press freedoms. Government officials had rejected meetings on the first two trips, but in October, they got meetings with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other top officials, applying pressure. (Simon’s report on the meetings shows the half-a-loaf diplomacy that is sometimes possible in this cases.) It’s too often a case of two steps backward, one step forward, as this last week’s further arrests of mainstream editors and journalists in Turkey show.
“In Turkey, self-censorship is greater, economic crackdowns are greater, and the divisions are greater than even two years ago,” says Rowe. “They are seeing changes almost month by month.” Arrests are one thing; economic pressures can be more effective. “They can be taxed out of existence, and then a supporter of president can buy it. In Russia, there’s a Russian TV station that first had Russian cable and satellite operators drop it, and then they were told their [office] lease wouldn’t be renewed. Finally, the state passed a law banning advertising on private channels as of Jan. 1.”
Rowe also makes a hugely important point about the very nature of democracy in this millennium: “Our view of Western democracy is that it automatically includes freedom of speech. In many, many countries, even with democratically elected leaders, the view is much more narrow than that, and doesn’t include what we take for granted as basic values. In many countries, when they speak of democracy, they think of the election. When we think of democracy, we think of the package of freedoms.” Hence the coverage, and our misunderstanding, of the Arab Spring.
What actually works to win release of some prisoners and reduce the journalistic toll? “You’ve got to make them feel it,” says Simon. In a word, amplify the concern. It’s a combination of advocacy group intervention and social pressure that can get journalists released more quickly. Simon can tick off the cases where he thinks it has helped. For more on what individuals can do, see “What can you do?”
As the levers of news dissemination multiply, so do the pulleys of press disruption. We see the methods used by the Putins and Erdogans, and now we stand amazed by the likelihood that Kim Jong-un is conducting his own war of information by new means. (Excellent Jacob Weisberg take on the press’ responsibility in this new world of leaking), only furthered by the news that Sony is cancelling the release of The Interview.
In many ways, it’s a digital arms race as the forces of both repression and anti-repression use the means at their disposal to battle.
The map of repression
We can look at the map of crackdown and see how globally the issue looms.
- Turkey: This once rapidly democratizing nation has reversed course, as we saw in massive street demonstrations over the past year, the kind of news that pops in, and out, of our consciousness too quickly. On the ground, it’s a closing vice of pressure on news media. Over the last week, we saw the severest of pushes, as Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the most circulated Turkish newspaper Zaman, was arrested, along with two dozen other journalists. Yesterday, tens of thousands of protesters reacted by taking to the streets. One charge: “forgery, fabricating evidence, and forming an alleged crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state” — the kind of charge that marks governments gone power mad. Five years ago, while visiting Istanbul, I visited an art show, and there depicted were the killings over time of more than 20 journalists, most cases unsolved. Since then, the “otherness” of the press has only gotten worse. A Turkish journalist friend wrote me this week, “There is a media crackdown…Turkish police arrested senior journalists, media executives and even the scriptwriter for a popular television series on charges of ‘forming, leading and being a member of an armed terrorist organization’…This is an alarming situation for democracy and basic human rights. Any sign of solidarity for our fellow journalists from your side is highly appreciated. Many thanks in advance.”
- China: “China is world’s worst jailer of the press,” headlined CPJ’s annual report Wednesday, and China quickly responded, showing the power of public light. “The 44 journalists in Chinese jails are a jump from 32 the previous year, and reflect the pressure that President Xi Jinping has exerted on media, lawyers, dissidents, and academics to toe the government line,” says the report, laying out the specifics of multiple repression.
- Iran: Together with China, the two countries are holding one-third of journalists imprisoned in the world. CPJ reminds of the reality of Evin Prison — where Jason Rezaian is now held, and where Maziar Bahari was incarcerated, the place that the Shah used to silence his critics 40 years ago. CPJ cites Iran’s “revolving door policy of imprisoning reporters, bloggers, editors, and photographers.”
- Russia: A set of new media laws continues to strangle free expression as the country’s leadership has turned xenophobic. From the coverage of the Crimean invasion to the battle over eastern Ukraine, Russia is moving closer to a Soviet-style system of single viewpoint, cracking down in myriad ways.
- Hungary: As prime minister Viktor Orban has consolidated power, a new “Media Authority” further restricts the ability to provide free press — right in the middle of Europe. Among its loosely defined authorities: “Media organizations must surrender data about their employees and contracts, as well as editorial and advertising content, at a level of granular detail that no media outlet in any other part of Europe has to provide to their governments. And the Media Authority has been given unusual enforcement powers: This single agency of doubtful independence has at its disposal a full suite of fines, suspensions, license revocations, and business closures.” What can — and will — the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, do to respond?
- Latin America: While we’ve seen great democratizing and pushing forward with press freedoms in big nations like Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, the press toll around the continent offers a steady drumbeat. Just Monday, the longstanding free press advocates at the Inter-American Press Association (or Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, Inc.,)demanded action in the murder of Honduras’ Canal 28 television channel owner and journalist Reynaldo Paz Mayes. From Argentina at its southernmost tip to Venezuela and up into Central America and Mexico, IAPA details the constant pressures on the press.
- Japan: The Abe government just won a landslide vote, and with it comes the likelihood of a national secrets act, which in the voice of leading daily Asahi Shimbun would “give the government a monopoly on information and places extreme limits on the people’s right to know and inquire, and on the freedom of the press.” Already, those trying to monitor policy and practice in the nuclear industry, post-Fukushima, have felt stymied in their efforts. The new laws — aimed as with most Western nations at combatting terrorism — would offer new chilling ability to the government.
What about the U.S.? Our own issues in the U.S., of course, pale against death, imprisonment, and the iron hands of censorship. Yet New York Times reporter James Risen’s years-long case proves best that the battle is ongoing, as the security vs. freedom issues play out in the years ahead; CPJ’s U.S. page catalogs some of the issues. It is, of course, our continuing package of freedoms, as Sandy Rowe puts it, that lets us shine lights on ourselves. That’s a package all the more precious as we survey a perilous press world, and one worth taking time to celebrate — and act on.
What can you do?
In the holiday spirit, let’s consider these possibilities.
Support the organizations that support press freedom with yearend donations, or gifts in your name for the relative who can’t figure out what to buy you. Among them:
- Committee to Protect Journalists: promotes press freedom, donate here
- Reporters Without Borders: supporting and protecting journalists,donate here
- AccessNow: tech-oriented support of digital/human/journalist rights,donate here
- Amnesty International: supporting human rights, donate here
- Human Rights Watch: defending human/journalist rights, donate here
Spend 10 minutes a week in your social media diet to support journalist prisoners. Put in our your calendar, as a to-do, as you remember images from Rosewater of the absolute isolation imprisoned fellow journalists endure. Facebook and Twitter posts have largely replaced letter-writing campaigns as ways of applying pressure, pressure that has paid off in the release of a number of cases CPJ, and others, have highlighted. The power, of course, here is viral — and in the encouraging non-journalists to add their voices.
Badge your support. Simon also suggests letting people know that you support press, and human, freedoms in bio lines like “cat lover, Scorcese fan, pilates enthusiast, free press advocate” in social profiles. The hashtag #pressfreedom provides a running storyline of causes to support, as, of course, do the sites highlighted here.