The Blog

Time for Journalists to Unite: The Years 2012 and 2013 Have Been the Worst on Record for Reporters

Our imprisoned colleagues join a long list of reporters who have been killed, injured and imprisoned in recent years. Paradoxically, while the media has grown ever more influential in recent times, its foot soldiers are ever more exposed as they are targeted.
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Here we go again; three of our colleagues who've been arrested in Egypt for allegedly communicating with the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood, decreed a "terrorist" organization, have had their arrests extended. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are the latest victims of a series of crackdowns on journalists in the Middle East and beyond. Two other Al Jazeera journalists Mohammed Badr and Abdullah al-Shami have been in prison since July 2013.

In response, scores of renowned journalists from around the world have signed a letter demanding the release of our colleagues. The letter states:

We, the undersigned correspondents and editors of international news organizations covering Egypt, hereby call for the immediate release of our colleagues Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who have been arbitrarily imprisoned since December 29. We are deeply concerned to learn that our colleagues, all three of whom are well respected journalists, may face charges that include belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading false news that could endanger national security.

We also call for the release of other journalists who have been detained in Egypt, some of whom have been arbitrarily imprisoned for over five months.

The arrest of these journalists has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt. We strongly believe that upholding the rights of journalists and permitting the free flow of information is vital to bringing about greater understanding and serves the best interests of all Egyptians and the world.

Such collegiality is as ethical as it is strategic.

CNN's most internationally familiar face, Christiane Amanpour, who signed the letter, complained on air last week about the fact that "three of my colleagues are in jail for doing their job." (Thanks to Amanpour's gesture, I almost forgot that CNN has hired Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., to provide, in his words, a "balanced" perspective to viewers of the cable news network.)

Controlling the message
Our imprisoned colleagues join a long list of reporters who have been killed, injured and imprisoned in recent years. Paradoxically, while the media has grown ever more influential in recent times, its foot soldiers are ever more exposed as they are targeted.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 211 journalists were jailed in 2013, and 232 in 2012; the two worst years on record. Moreover, almost 100 journalists were killed in 2013; 70 where the motive was confirmed, and 25 where the motive was not confirmed. That's almost two journalists killed a week.

The three countries with the worst and deadliest record are: Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. And while extremists groups were accountable for a great deal of harm, the regimes were politically, legally and morally responsible for the deteriorating situation.

Since the July 3, 2013 coup d'etat, Egypt's generals have been particularly eager to silence their critics in the local and international media. The genie had to be put back in the proverbial bottle after the wave of Arab uprisings unleashed the momentum towards freedom of expression.

According to a leaked video, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been keen on restraining the media: "It takes a long time before you're able to affect and control the media. We are working on this and we are achieving more positive results, but we are yet to achieve what we want."

Needless to say, controlling information in the age of the technological revolution is rather improbable, especially in Egypt where new and social media have connected millions of citizens. But the regime is adamant on undoing the damage caused by what it believes was "unfair" coverage by foreign journalists.

Ironically, after hiring a number of Washington public relations firms to improve its image, according to The Economist, "one firm sent a film crew to Egypt to shoot some pretty footage of order and progress. Within hours of setting foot on the streets of Cairo, they were arrested."

You just can't make this stuff up! But comical as it may be, the situation is so utterly tragic, it requires a serious response from those most affected, the journalists.

United we stand
Regardless of the competition between news organizations, cooperation and solidarity among journalists is the only way to protect the messenger and safeguard the message.

Indeed, intra-institutional rivalry can be as aggressive as inter-institutional competition. And it's certainly the case in our network, Al Jazeera. A multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-denominational organization with veterans from CNN, BBC and countless other networks from around the world, it's a microcosm of today's global media.

We may differ over pay, say or sway, but that has never deterred us from having each other's back. We're all in this together, and we must make it clear to all those in power that targeting any one of us would be targeting us all.

Indeed, the greater the competition and the deeper the rift, the more important it is for us to support each other's freedom from repression. It is normal to defend those with whom we work or agree, but the real test of our ethics is to defend those with whom we disagree.

We may differ in many ways, but we all belong to the same honorable profession. And it's increasingly under attack.

That's why journalists around the world must unite in solidarity to deter repression. They need to defend the liberty to carry out their mission ethically and professionally. Fear of intimidation leads to self-censorship and the failure to reveal injustices and the abuse of power, which affect countless people around the world.

And when it comes to solidarity and pacifist protest, the media, our own medium, is the most potent of all. In fact, all other ways and means to generate public pressure depend largely on the media to be effective.

That's not to suggest that we have a right to exploit the forum provided to us for narrow ends. Rather, the medium should be used for its own protection. The international media reaches every household, every company and every government; our outreach capacity can never be overstated.

Imagine if the White House, Whitehall or the Elysee Palace correspondents were to stand for a moment of silence in memory of killed colleagues, or make any simple gesture in solidarity with their imprisoned colleagues during one of the countless press conferences.

That would surely get governments' attention and perhaps begin to generate some pressure to end the suffering of their fellow journalists.