Monday, May 7, 2012

Should Journalists Be Protected?



Last week I wrote this piece for The Huffington Post: 


Thursday was World Press Freedom Day. On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) published an article listing the arrests, injuries, and assaults of at least eighteen journalists covering recent clashes near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. Some reporters were beaten, others shot at, a few captured or detained by the military.
CJP's Mohammed Abdel Dayem commented with indignation, "Authorities cannot stand by while journalists are being beaten -- at times so viciously that their lives are put at risk... We call on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to identify the attackers and bring them to justice immediately, as well as to release journalists in custody. Journalists must be allowed to carry out their work without threat of physical assault or arrest."
I had always felt uncomfortable with this kind of indignation, and I finally began to understand it when I discovered NYU Professor Jay Rosen's blog PressThink. Rosen argues that journalists have a creed, a religion of sorts, in which it is taken as holy writ that they have a right to be protected and to go about their work without intimidation. This is based on some version of the American first amendment. He who attacks or arrests journalists, the story goes, is violating something more than just the journalist's wellbeing. Censorship, whether physical or bureaucratic, is sacrilege.
For the past few years, the rise of what is called 'citizen journalism' or 'public journalism', which Rosen himself has helped to pioneer, has made the question of journalists' rights all the more tricky. The Huffington Post's campaign coverage initiative Off the Bus was an example of how the death of newspapers and the Internet-driven rise of audience participation in reporting can be harnessed to increase credibility.
But what about when the audience is fighting? In Egypt, the concept of citizen journalism has been as celebrated as anywhere over the past year. But if every citizen is a journalist, and citizens are protesting the government, how can journalists credibly demand protection? And who are they demanding protection from?

Since posting this piece, I've gotten some interesting comments. One person was a bit indignant, writing "They are accredited. 
A guy with a phone isn't a journalist." Another wrote, "And what about journalists that give out full names, e-mail addresses, and hometowns of military personnel? Do they have the right to possibly put those people in further danger, or their families?" And finally: 

"Domestically you do have a fair degree of certainty that if arrested, media credentials will prevent you being charged. That flows through internationally as well. The credentials either serve as proof that you were not part of an activity (an observer), or that somebody is going to care about you and there might be some adverse outcome from higher up the local chain of command."

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