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Why journalists face greater harm in an age of abundant and accessible media

January 7, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The attacks in Paris were focused on a very different kind of newspaper, as we just heard.

But, every day, traditional journalists are facing real dangers and threats. In fact, the past three years have seen the highest number of journalists killed or imprisoned in recent times.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN:   On the one hand, information is everywhere and more people around the world have access to it. On the other, for journalists, those who have traditionally gathered and disseminated so much of that information, the times are more dangerous than ever.

JOEL SIMON, Committee to Protect Journalists: Absolutely. That’s the paradox. We live in an age defined by information. And yet the people who bring us this information are dying, being imprisoned, being killed in record numbers. If you look at the data, it is shocking, but press freedom, freedom of expression is actually in decline around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN:   In his role as executive director of the advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon watches all of this unfold on a daily basis.

In a new book, “The New Censorship,” he’s looked at case studies and some of the causes behind growing dangers for journalists.

We talked yesterday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.,

JOEL SIMON: One of the fundamental things that has happened is, the relationship between journalists and the people they cover, the power relationship, has changed.

Journalists were — once had a sort of information monopoly. If you wanted to talk to the public, the global public, you needed to go through the media. That is no longer the case. So the value of individual journalists, whether they’re professional journalists or citizen journalists, is diminished. And they are more vulnerable as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN:   Explain that more. It is no longer the case, because if you are — whether you are a terrorist group or a government, you can tell your own story.

JOEL SIMON: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN:   Or an average citizen, you can tell your own story.

JOEL SIMON: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN:   So the most glaring example would be war, terrorism, Syria, ISIS, where we see very public violence, public beheadings against journalists.

JOEL SIMON: I think one way to think about this is, when journalists went into conflict zones, it wasn’t that long ago that they would identify themselves as journalists. They would put TV on the car. They would write “Press” on their flak jackets. They wanted people to know that they were journalists, because that was an insurance policy.

JEFFREY BROWN:   That was insurance of safety.

JOEL SIMON: Right.

Now you are just a target. If you identify yourself as a journalist, certainly in Syria, there are almost — there are no journalists operating in the present Syria controlled by ISIS, but if you — you certainly don’t want to identify yourself. You would just make yourself a target.

JEFFREY BROWN:   The Committee to Protect Journalists just issued its annual report for 2014 on conditions around the world. The most glaring numbers for last year? Sixty-one journalists killed, 221 imprisoned.

JOEL SIMON: First of all, world’s leading jailer of journalists, China. There’s a tremendous crackdown going on in China, 44 journalists in prison in China. That is the highest number we have ever recorded.

Iran is another country where the president, Rouhani, came to power promising reforms. We haven’t seen that play out in terms it of the media environment. So those are some terrible offenders.

JEFFREY BROWN:   Two places, in fact, that people thought had some hope as new leaders came in.

JOEL SIMON: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN:   But we haven’t seen that.

JOEL SIMON: We haven’t seen that reform that they — that has been promised in either country manifest in terms of press freedom or the rights of journalists, in fact, the opposite.

JEFFREY BROWN:   Yes.

JOEL SIMON: And let me mention one special category, which is Egypt.

Egypt has become both violent — journalists are facing levels of violence — and repressive, with the jailing of journalists, including the Al-Jazeera journalists. Their cases are well-known. But there are about a dozen journalists, all told, in prison in Egypt. So, that situation is very alarming.

JEFFREY BROWN:   Simon meets often with world leaders to raise concerns. But many, he says, make it clear that they too feel they can tell and control their own story and no longer need journalists as they once did.

JOEL SIMON: Examples include President Erdogan in Turkey, or Vladimir Putin in Russia, or the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

And I recently had a meeting with President Erdogan want in Turkey, a CPJ delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists. And we sat down. And he started out the meeting by really attacking the press, lashing out at the press, including the international media. Turkey, for the last several years, has been one of the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

He basically feels he can govern without the press, he can win popular support without the press. And he is locked in an antagonistic relationship with the media.

JEFFREY BROWN:   And he is very up front about it.

JOEL SIMON: Very up front.

JEFFREY BROWN:   In other words, he tells you to your face.

JOEL SIMON: Very up front. I mean, that is very unusual. Usually, when you meet with leaders to talk about press freedom, they talk that it’s important, it’s critical to democracy.

He made no concession. He basically said journalists are operating as enemies. We have to ensure that they — that I am not insulted. Journalists cannot insult me. This is the limit that we have in Turkey.

He was very up front about this.

JEFFREY BROWN:   At the same time, of course, citizens in Turkey and around the world have more access to information than they have ever had before. And that gives people, as Simon acknowledges, a new kind of power.

JOEL SIMON: I don’t think it’s an either/or. We — it’s better in many ways. And my vision of the information world in which we live is not entirely negative.

I would just say that the abundance of information, the unprecedented amount of information, blinds us to the gaps in our knowledge that is achieved by this new censorship. And that’s what I’m arguing. So we live in an age defined by information, and we’re so enveloped in this information, that we don’t know what we don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN:   We don’t know what we don’t know.

JOEL SIMON: That’s right. That’s right.

And that’s — that’s the paradox that we have to resolve. We have to make sure — we have to recognize that the information, it doesn’t come from technology. It comes from people. There are people on the front lines who are reporting this news. And there are systems, the Internet itself, that delivers us this information.

And we need to make sure that the people who are providing this information are safe and able to do the work, and the systems that deliver this information are able to function without control.

JEFFREY BROWN:   All right. The new book is “The New Censorship.”

Joel Simon, thanks very much.

JOEL SIMON: Thank you so much.

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