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Covering conflict and corruption, journalists face rising threat of violence and imprisonment

March 5, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Egypt’s arrest and trial of three Al-Jazeera journalists, charged with assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, has prompted outcry around the world. The case helps highlight growing dangers to journalists worldwide, especially in countries caught in war or turmoil. In 2013, 119 members of the press died while on assignment. Alison Bethel McKenzie of the International Press Institute and David Rohde of Reuters join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the hazards.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore the Al-Jazeera case and threats to journalists now with Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the International Press Institute. She traveled to Egypt in January, where she met with the foreign minister to discuss Egypt’s media climate. And Reuters reporter David Rohde, while working for “The New York Times” in 2008, he was captured by the Taliban and spent seven months in captivity inside Pakistan.

Well, welcome to you both.

Alison McKenzie, I would like to start with you.

Remind us first of some of the details of this case in Egypt. What exactly is the government saying that Al-Jazeera journalists did?

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE, International Press Institute: Well, they’re saying not just of Al-Jazeera journalists, who are the bulk of the journalists who are currently in jail, but all of the journalists, including journalists from Turkey and Yemen, that they have been practicing terrorism by affiliating with a terrorist group mostly.

They’re also claiming, in some cases, that the journalists are not licensed to work in Egypt and are stirring the pot, in other words, going against the Egyptian government and showing the Egyptian government in a very bad light. That is their chief complaint.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Rohde, what’s your reading of this particular case? Clearly, some of it is attached to Al-Jazeera being funded by the Qatar government, which is at odds with the Egyptian government.

DAVID ROHDE, Reuters: Yes.

To me, this is part of this larger struggle where the military government is trying to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And these journalists from Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera itself are sort of part of that. The Egyptian military sees Al-Jazeera as — as part of Qatar’s effort to sort of back the Brotherhood. Qatar denies that.

But, more importantly, Al-Jazeera denies it. And it — the charges are essentially ridiculous, based on everything I have seen, and it’s a classic effort by a government to scapegoat journalists for problems in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Alison, you have talked to officials there. What is the — what are the stakes here, first — first in Egypt itself? What do you see as the stakes?

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE: Well, the problem is — well, there are many problems, but the main problem is, this is causing self-censorship, not by journalists, only by journalists who work in Egypt who are from Egypt, but foreign correspondents as well.

Some of these people who have attacked journalists — and most of the ones who have been physically attacked have been broadcast journalists, because they are most visible, especially cameramen. The people who are attacking them are getting away with it. There’s a climate of impunity, which is a very big problem there.

But the stakes are really, really high. Most recently, two years ago, Egypt wasn’t even on the radar in terms of one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Today, it is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. And one of the big problems is that we don’t see a solution to this any time soon.

We’re hoping that there will be some sort of diplomatic solution, maybe a conversation between Al-Jazeera and the military government, but they’re very far apart. And there is great disdain for Al-Jazeera from government officials, military officials in Egypt and by some citizens.

But, at the end of the day, as David mentioned, we don’t believe that journalists should be jailed for what they write or what they broadcast on radio or television.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Rohde, I…

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE: And they certainly shouldn’t be detained.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

David Rohde, as…

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE: Go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: … we mentioned, there’s a lot of outside pressure coming from the — from the — from the outside world.

What’s your experience, your experience in particular? And in a case like this, how much impact does that have? Is there the possibility that it also causes somewhat of a backlash?

DAVID ROHDE: There are sort of two different dynamics going on here.

I was kidnapped by insurgents. And that is a danger that journalists are facing. There’s actually 30 journalists now kidnapped or missing in Syria. Most of them have been grabbed by jihadist rebels in the north of the country. In Egypt, this is a second trend, which is governments cracking down on journalists.

Now, worldwide, there’s been roughly a 50 percent increase in the number of journalists in jail since 2008. There’s 211 journalists in jail at this point. And it’s — it’s outrageous. So, you have both groups, governments sort of blaming journalists and insurgents at the same time. I think public pressure can help with governments. Iran was pressured a great deal publicly when they detained journalists in 2009. So, I think the more noise, the more complaints against the Egyptian government, the better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Alison McKenzie, now we have started to broaden this out from Egypt internationally.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — how do you — how does this particular case fit in to the — to bigger concerns for journalists around the world?

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE: The problem is that we have seen an increase — and David sort of alluded to this — an increased — an increase in the number of journalists who are being attacked, kidnapped, jailed, detained without being charged for indefinite periods of time.

And one of the biggest things — or — that’s being used against journalists is this idea of journalists being terrorists. And these charges are generally very flimsy charges, with no proof, and people are using — and it’s increased, obviously, since September 11 — are using terrorism as a means to detain journalists, because they don’t like what they read or what they hear.

The problem is enormous. And we are very concerned also about the safety of journalists, not only them being detained in prison, but being murdered, and brutally murdered. So we’re quite concerned. And the U.N. Council of Human Rights has made this quite an issue, the safety of journalists. And, of course, where I am today, Austria, the country of Austria has made it one of their priorities to address this issue of the safety of journalists, and particularly women journalists.

We have seen an uptick in attacks and assaults in everything from rape to kidnapping of women journalists, more than we have seen in recent history, and that is of great concern to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Rohde, just in our last minute or so, so, you can fill in that picture a little bit more. I mean, this is — this is this is upgrading the dangerous for journalists operating around the world?

DAVID ROHDE: It definitely is.

And it’s actually local journalists that are being targeted the most, and it’s local journalists that are trying to report about corruption and problems in the government itself. So, there will be this veneer of, it’s terrorism and these broader issues. But this is just people in power silencing journalists that are writing stories that are — you know, that hold them accountable.

The — the stories of foreign journalists get a lot more headlines, but, again, the vast majority of victims in these cases and the vast majority of murders are local journalists being killed by local governments or local criminals.

So, it’s — again, the problem is, the trend is terrible, imprisonments are up, killings are up, and it’s — it’s not stopping. And there has to be much more of an outcry against this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Rohde, Alison Bethel McKenzie, thank you both very much.

ALISON BETHEL MCKENZIE: Yes.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.