As information becomes free, those who create it face dangers

Joel Simon, the Executive Direct of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has a new book out, The New Censorship: Inside the Battle for Global Media Freedom.

On Monday, January 5, he spoke to Rebecca MacKinnon at Politics & Prose, in Washington DC. MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices (where I once did some work), is the author of The Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Unrelated -- but more than a bit prescient -- the talk took place just two days before the killings of 12 journalists and staffers at the Paris weekly, Charlie Hebdo.

Simon wanted to explore the paradox that we live in such an information-saturated age that we’re actually dwarfed by it. But the people who bring us that information “have never been more vulnerable.” Today, some 200 journalists are in prison, a number that has held steady stayed for the past three years, equalling the highest number of imprisoned journalists since the CPJ started keeping track.

At the same time, People are so dependent on information that we are blind to our gaps of knowledge and we don’t have a very good understanding of the system that brings us our information.

That traditional delivery system – the professional press – is becoming more and more diminished. The information monopoly that journalists once had is gone, which makes them more vulnerable in a number of ways:

One, political leaders, especially those who Simon calls Democrators – elected to power but don’t respect democracy’s institutions (Russia’s Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) -- don’t have a need for journalists.

Simon tells a story of meeting with Erdoğan in the capacity of his head of CPJ. Generally, the meetings with foreign leaders start out with the head of state stating how much s/he respects the press, leading the visiting CPJ team to  ask: why, then, do you jail these people, listing off the journalists in prison. It's this point where the argument begins.

Not so with Erdoğan, Simon said. He immediately went on the offensive on how he doesn’t like journalists, finds them oppositional, and claims they don’t tell the truth.

He then broke another taboo: The Turkish leader even went to say that journalists at the New York Times and CNN were the worst offenders, an uncommon complaint for heads of state, who generally take their anger out on local journalists, ignoring the foreign reporters.

The problem with these Democrators is that they’re popularly elected, and often, quite popular, Simon says. In the case of Turkey, many people applaud the jailing of journalists, who they see as part of a political problem. (During the Q & A section, someone pointed out that he knows many Turks who have many complaints of their press.)  

Secondly, terror groups don’t have a need for journalists, either. Both terrorists and governments  have alternative ways to speak directly to people, to get their story out. Conversely, the people often doing reporting in areas held by terror groups are largely citizens (and may not think of themselves as journalists). These people lack the institutional network of full-fledged reporters who often have the help of their parent organization, their foreign bureaus, lawyers, administrative support, to fall back on.

Finally, it’s easy for governments to use journalists’ tools against them to track them, to watch them and break into their gadgets  to more closely follow their work. Discussion ensued on the how the revelations of internet surveillance in the US and elsewhere has lead to writers and others to self-censor their work, their searches and their writings.  “Surveillance is like drone warfare," Simon said. “Nothing seems safe from the NSA.” The problem is, attempting NSA-type surveillance is getting cheaper and easier for others to do.

So, why is this important? Simon argues for those who feel they benefit from information moving across borders, this is an important issue. We need people to inform us, and we in the US and other Western countries depend on journalists from around the world to tell us our news. In some countries — Syria, for example — local people are reporting by any means necessary because it is far too dangerous for Westerners. Thus, we need to insure their protection  and help those people protect themselves.

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In light of last week's massacre at the Charlie Hedbo office, I'd say Simon's and McKinnon's talk has even more weight. The Paris killings took place in a Global Media Capital, so the shock reverberated throughout that world: mostly Western, media savvy, liberal and educated.  But the people Simon is most concerned about feel different.  These are the local journalists, bloggers or citizens who often toil under relative anonymity, working to uncover the stories of places many of us don't know or would never travel to. Instead of a being gunned down in an audacious terrorist attack, these people are quietly bullied into submission, imprisoned or disappeared. 

Photo: Journalists on duty by Yan Arief Purwanto