By Jeremy Main, Larry Martz and Kevin McDermott
Journalists covering the ongoing “Arab spring” uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East face a daunting challenge. By the count of the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 450 reporters, photographers and broadcasters have been attacked by the authorities or by mobs. Dozens have been arrested — many of them beaten or otherwise mistreated while detained — and 12 have been killed. In Libya, journalists have had to work under fire in combat situations.
Individual stories of such abuses are moving and often horrifying, as in CBS correspondent Lara Logan‘s unsparing account elsewhere on this website of her sexual assault in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. In all, the journalists covering these stories have shown great courage and professionalism; they are a credit to the craft, and all of us can take pride in the way they have risen to the challenge.
With the situation changing daily in more than a dozen countries, it’s all but impossible to keep up with the tally. The OPC’s Freedom of the Press Committee has struggled to find meaningful ways to protest the abuses, especially to governments (like Libya’s and Syria’s) that have chosen repression and violence as a deliberate policy to stifle dissent. In such cases, we can only point out that their actions show weakness and fear, and will in the end be self-defeating.
We wrote such letters just before the rebellions to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar El-Qaddafi, and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. We have since written in the same terms to President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran. To governments whose policies seem to veer between tolerance and repression of dissent, such as Yemen, Turkey, Jordan and Bahrain, we urge the value of restraint. And to the new military government of Egypt, we have expressed our dismay at the three-year jail sentence for a blogger who criticized the military’s role during the uprising.
The Arab Spring is not an isolated event. It has sent shock waves through authoritarian countries from Azerbaijan and Myanmar to Russia and China, with widely varying results. Russia seems to be softening its approach, finally pursuing at least some of the killers of journalists in recent years, while China’s savage crackdown on dissent is clearly aimed at stifling calls for its own “jasmine revolution.” All of this, of course, demands reactions from the Freedom of the Press Committee.
It can feel at times that raising one’s voice in protest is like shouting at the wind. We don’t think so. It is essential to let despots know that someone is watching what they do. And just often enough to sustain us, a journalist is freed from an unjust sentence or given access to a doctor, or the pressure on a paper to publish what authorities would prefer to see is relaxed.
More letters are currently in the works. Any OPC members who would like to lend a hand are invited to contact Executive Director Sonya Fry and volunteer.