Clip File: Some Journalism Deserves Respect

Writing in the New Yorker, George Packer reminds us that, every year, the Committee to Protect Journalists holds a fund-raising gala at the Waldorf-Astoria in midtown Manhattan to raise the budget it needs to "continue for another year doing its job of defending journalists around the world — calling attention to murders, threats, attacks, and imprisonments, lobbying for journalists’ safety and release, supporting endangered journalists and their families and survivors."

Murders, threats, attacks and imprisonments. This litany of intimidation goes on, in part, because in most places where journalists suffer such mistreatment either no government exists or the government itself is violent, corrupt and autocratic. The CPJ dinner is a reminder that behind many stories it honors are "brave, humorous, quietly defiant men and women, rarities and eccentrics who nonetheless seem to exist in every country, upholding high journalistic standards in the world’s most dangerous places, with no powerful backers, and almost no one paying attention except government thugs or anonymous gunmen."
Since 1992, almost eight hundred journalists have been killed for doing their job, and the graph of the annual total rises steadily upward over time. Many thousands more have been imprisoned, including — just to put one name on the statistic — Thet Zin, an editor of the Myanmar Nation weekly in Rangoon, who was arrested shortly before I was to meet him on a trip to Burma last year, and who is serving a seven-year sentence for possessing a report issued by the United Nations special envoy to Burma for human rights. The one organization that can be counted on to keep alive the names and fates of these easily forgotten men and women is the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As Packer writes, the CPJ carries on its crucial work on the shoestring budget it manages to scrape together at its annual dinner: here's a link to information on how to help the CPJ to help at-risk journalists.

The rest of the story: Annual Reminder: Some Journalism Deserves Respect! by George Packer (The New Yorker 2009-11-30).

In thinking about the situation of these brave writers, editors, researchers, photographers and videographers, it occurred to me that digital technology might enable a mechanism that would provide more support and protection. Many of these abuses are possible, inevitable even, because they take place in the metaphorical dark. What if there existed an organization pledged to carry on the work of a journalist who is intimidated, imprisoned or killed even after the original reporter has been eliminated? That an act of violence or intimidation intended to silence a reporter would only assure that an even brighter light would shine on his or her investigation?

It might work like this: a secure website is established where journalists can store copies of notes, phone books, appointment calendars, documentary evidence, audio, video and image files, drafts, manuscripts, and so on. These reporters let it be known to their contacts, subjects, bosses, etc., that this cache of information exists, and that it will be followed up on if anything untoward happens. Professional journalists in safer parts of the world, volunteering to pair up with the at-risk reporters, commit either to continuing the work themselves or making sure that the research is handed over to reporters in the field who can finish the job. With communication around the planet now virtually instantaneous, this website will also provide a trail of cookie crumbs behind reporters when their work carries them into dangerous situations. To take an example from within our own shores, isn't it likely that the goons from the Black Muslim Bakery might have had second thoughts about gunning down Chauncey Bailey if they'd known that the Oakland Post editor's notes and other materials would be instantly in the hands of other investigators at the Chronicle, the Bee or the Times dedicated to carrying on with the story? In addition, wouldn't it provide a small measure of security if a reporter going into a dangerous situation -- a meeting with an informant in a remote location, say -- could leave a real-time record of who, when & where so that immediate action could be taken if he or she didn't check in at a designated time?

Such a website would not be terribly difficult or expensive to create and could be operated with a very small staff. An operating budget would have to be found, but in that respect it would be no different than any other non-profit. The greatest difficulty would be in finding journalists with the wherewithal to genuinely provide the back up, although it wouldn't be a surprise if aggressive media operations like the BBC, Reuters, CNN, McClatchy, the Washington Post and the New York Times would find it in their interest to provide institutional support to employees inclined to participate.

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