An Era of Reporting Under Fear

05/12/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2016

WASHINGTON - Media freedoms, globally, are under threat. Since 2001, about 20 journalists worldwide have been killed every year, but this number spiked to 70 since 2007, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, who moderated a panel on April 30 on Reporting Under Fear at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. Organized by the school's student weekly, The SAIS Observer, the event convened six journalists including myself who have reported across the world - including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.

In 2015, 21 journalists were killed during the first four months of the year. While Syria and Iraq have dominated the news, countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have also become dangerous places where being a journalist may lead to harassment if not death. Surprisingly, the list of deadliest countries also includes Colombia and India.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) describes a culture of impunity with respect to the slain journalists. There have been no punishments for 90 percent of those killed while reporting. Nearly 12 percent of those killed were also tortured.

At the event, Bergen recalled his 1996 interview with Osama bin Laden. Recounting his experience, he said he "wasn't scared" but "excited" to interview someone he thought "was going to be an important person in world history." He said it never occurred to him that bin Laden would harm him. The old rule was that "journalists and aid workers were off-limits" and considered as "non-combatants."

The state of journalism has obviously changed. The gruesome murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 by al Qaeda started this dangerous trend. Later, American Nicholas Berg was killed by al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. The brazen 2005 attack on the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad suddenly made the UN a target as well. Since then, aid workers have also faced increased risks. With high levels of security, the nature of journalism also changes. Bergen says CNN does not allow reporters to travel to dangerous places. "When for journalists it's all about staying safe, then journalism can also suffer."

The Islamic State has killed 3 journalists and at least 25 remain in their custody. Indeed, the rules of the game have changed, calling for an appropriate response.

The situation in high-risk countries remains perilous. In conflict zones, journalists often come in the line of fire. For instance, Pakistan's restive Balochistan province with an insurgency is now a graveyard for journalists. Many have had to leave the place and worse, flee the country to save their lives. Asif Magsi, a reporter from Balochistan had to leave the area in 2013 due to threats from a death squad. He moved to Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city to escape possible persecution. Soon, he was in trouble again when he reported on the issue of missing persons allegedly in the custody of the state. Very soon after, an intelligence official called Magsi and accused him of being an agent of India's main intelligence agency RAW, an organization that Pakistani considers a sponsor of insurgency in the province. More recently, he invoked the ire of state authorities for speaking about Balochistan during a study tour in the United States. His cousin was shot dead and Magsi has not returned.

SAIS alumnus and panelist Frank Smyth narrated the difficulties of exile. He cited the case of one Colombian journalist and how exile made life difficult for him. Since I moved to Washington, D.C. almost a year ago, I have met several out-of-work journalists from different countries who perform odd jobs to sustain themselves. Journalistic standards and imperatives are totally different in the United States. Another young journalist, Kashif Sarmad, currently based in Texas, works at a gas station and continues to seek my advice on how to re-enter journalism.

Looking at the glass half full, J.S. Tissainayagam, the exiled Sri Lankan journalist who sought political asylum in the United States after escaping a draconian jail term from a presidential pardon, said new environments could enable exiled journalists to exercise more freedom. That is partly true as many have families back home. Magsi for instance told me: "I still receive threats on Twitter, Facebook and unwanted emails and I am trying to keep a low profile." This is true for me as I continue to face online threats and harassment.

But those who work for Western news outlets are often unprotected 'in the field'. Increased reliance on local stringers or freelancers increases their vulnerability. Allison Shelley, a freelancer who has reported in Haiti, Nigeria, and Nepal, stressed preparation and spoke about the need for taking journalist security courses, making connections with locals, and finding a "fixer," someone who serves as a cultural and language interpreter. "In the absence of being able to hire a security firm, you just have to make a lot of connections and be really smart about the things you are going into," Shelley said.

The increased vulnerability of local journalists is an emerging issue according to Michael Getler, ombudsman for the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service. At the end of the day, as advised by Smyth, the national governments have to be reminded and 'pushed' to end the impunity that surrounds attacks on media persons.

Given how reporting has turned into a risky endeavor, is there a way out? Bergen is reasonably optimistic, considering that the U.S. government is in the midst of reviewing its hostage policy. "The current official policy of not negotiating with terrorists has proved to be counter-productive. Negotiation can be done without making concessions," Bergen, said.

First, according to Bergen, security clearances ought to be given to the families of the kidnapped journalists and aid workers for the purpose of keeping them informed about their loved ones. Second, a point person in the U.S. government is needed who can take charge of the journalists in danger. Third, negotiation by third parties for the release of aid-workers or journalists should be acceptable. For example, the case of journalist Theo Curtis involved a deal made with the help of the Qatari government. Finally, families and companies should be allowed to negotiate for the release of journalists. If this is not accepted, then many could be condemned to death.

Bergen's four-point formula is equally applicable to other countries. A lack of centralized authority and responsibility often hampers the task of releasing journalists. However, in developing countries the issue of impunity remains the foremost concern where national states have to prosecute the killers or attackers and not abandon journalists. This seems less likely given the experiences in Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere but increased advocacy by NGOs and others is beginning to shape a consensus around the globe that killing journalists is unacceptable.
"Central to a free society is a free press, and when journalists are silenced, targeted, and killed, democracies lose an essential pillar of what makes them democratic," said Jameel Khan, editor-in-chief of The SAIS Observer and founder of the SAIS "First Draft of History" series. "Until journalists are again immune from violence for their work, this conversation should remain in the fore of public debates."