At what cost: The risks of international journalism in a dangerous world

Maziar Bahari, 42, was imprisoned in Iran for almost 4 months, accused of spying for foreign media.

The feature in last week’s “Newsweek” was a personal account of Maziar Bahari’s captivity in Iran this summer. Bahari is a well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker. He was in Iran covering the June 12 election when he was arrested without charge. He was accused of being a foreign spy. He would spend the next 118 days in prison.

Bahari was released on bail in October, but still faces 15 different charges in Iran, barring him from re-entering the country. Iranian officials did not detail the reason for his release, but it is speculated that discussions between the United States and Iran a few weeks earlier in Geneva, the unstable health of his pregnant wife and international attention via petitions and media coverage were contributing factors.

His heart-wrenching account of his time in the Evin Prison in Iran is a great example of journalism, but also raises interesting questions about the protections afforded to journalists abroad. It is frightening to think the horrors he experienced could happen to any journalist.

This also reminded me of the media frenzy that ensued when Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for the “Christian Science Monitor,” was captured in January 2006. The insurgents that abducted Carroll used her as a bargaining chip to attempt to corner the U.S. into releasing Iraqi prisoners. She was eventually released by her captors for unknown reasons.

One group, Reporters without Borders, is an advocate for such journalists. They coordinate public demonstrations demanding the release of imprisoned reporters and fight against censorship of the press. The French NGO has networks in several countries, including the U.S., and more than 120 correspondents. It has consultant status with the United Nations.

  • Had you ever heard of Reporters without Borders? Do you think it’s an effective organization?
  • Should the U.S. rely on outside organizations such as these to protect our journalists or should there be a more institutional procedure for American correspondents?
  • Would you ever consider living in an unstable foreign country as a reporter?

Frankly, accounts such as these have led me to shy away from the prospect of being an international news correspondent. I don’t think I’m up to the risks involved. I personally feel there should be a more institutional approach by the U.S. to protect journalists. It seems that we simply respond depending on the situation, but I feel that more could be done. Additionally, I think we could make more monetary contributions and lend more political backing to organizations such as Reporters without Borders that seem to align themselves with our values of freedom of the press and freedom of speech and our position in support of human rights.

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3 responses to “At what cost: The risks of international journalism in a dangerous world

  1. What we have to keep in mind is this: the vast majority of journalists taken captive in foreign countries are there to cover some kind of political or military turmoil. As such, it should be an acknowledged risk they take in going to such a place. As journalists, we have an enormous amount of influence and power – it makes us worthwhile captives.

    I think it’s a marvelous idea to have an advocacy group on behalf of journalists taken captive, but relying on their effectiveness alone is probably not going to save you if you end up in such a situation. How many heads of reporters ended up sent in a box back to the U.S. during our fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

  2. Erin, to answer some of your questions:
    Until reading your blog post I had not heard of Reporters without Borders, or any other organizations developed specifically to protect journalists and fight for their rights. I must admit that I think such organizations are essential to ensure the safety of “America’s truth-tellers.” We cannot rely on the United Nations or our own national government to resolve such issues as a journalist being held captive in a timely matter that is respectable for such a case. And, I have to agree with you–I don’t think I’m cut out for the job of being an international news correspondent. I am too precautionary for such a risky position.

    Interesting post idea. =)

  3. Bahari’s account of his imprisonment is a gripping read. The NYT’s David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan and held for seven months by the Taliban. His first-person account is also disconcerting and, at times, troubling.

    RWB does an annual report on world press freedom. Iran, North Korea, Burma and Eritrea are among the most dangerous places to be a reporter. Its report always makes me appreciate the rights and protections we take for granted here.

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