JOANNE MYERS: I would like to welcome our members and guests to our afternoon conversation with Ann Cooper, the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She'll be talking about the Press and the War on Terrorism.
Journalists and press freedom advocates around the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May 3. It was a day to remember the vital role press freedom plays in fostering healthy democracies and free societies.
But it also serves to remind us just how dangerous the profession of journalism can be. Recent fatalities in Iraq have made us only too aware of the sheer vulnerability of correspondents during time of war. Yet the hazards of reporting are not limited to combat zones alone. Countries throughout the world such as Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Russia, Iran, Myanmar, and several others are cracking down on the press, threatening journalists, censoring them, and arresting them.
Today reporters are not only killed in combat or in ambushes but are even targeted and murdered in reprisal for their reporting. In addition, they are subject to kidnapping by militants, criminals, guerillas, or government forces and either blatantly killed or simply made to disappear after having been taken into government custody.
Even the most seasoned war correspondents have begun to question whether they, too, might be subject to the same fate as the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl.
The Committee to Protect Journalists was founded more than 20 years ago to guard against these dangers and to promote freedom of the press worldwide. To further this, they issue reports and conduct advocacy and research missions to countries where journalists are suffering from serious abuses.
Ann Cooper has been the Executive Director of the Committee since 1998. Her voice is well known to radio listeners in the United States from her nine years as a correspondent for National Public Radio.
She was appointed NPR's first Moscow Bureau Chief in 1987 and spent five years covering the tumultuous events of those times, including the failed coup attempt in Moscow. She co-edited a book of first-person accounts of that siege entitled Russia at the Barricades.
NPR also sent her to Beijing to cover the Tiananmen Squarepro-democracy movement.
Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 1992 to 1995, her coverage there won NPR the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Award in Broadcast Journalism.
She has written on the famine in Africa and has reported on the 1994 Rwandan refugee crisis. She is a champion for the right of journalists to report the truth without consequences.
ANN COOPER: Thank you very much, Joanne.
One of the first things that you learn when you work as a journalist is that governments always want to control information; and one of the first things that I learned as the Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists is that this is true of governments in every part of the world and of every kind of government—totalitarian, communist, democratic. Political leaders instinctively seek to hide news that makes them look less than good.
Armies do the same thing, whether they represent a government or a rebel movement. Negative news is something that the military is always seeking to control. And it's the same with criminal mafias: they don't want their dirty deeds exposed by investigative journalists, and in some countries organized criminals will kill journalists to shut them up.
This desire to control the news, the urge to hide wrongdoing, to cover up mistakes by public officials, those instincts are why the Committee to Protect Journalists exists. We've been around for 23 years, and the need is greater than ever for our advocacy to fight against censorship, imprisonment, and violence against the media. We're fighting so that the media can report the news freely and independently.
The need for press freedom advocacy would be great even if there were no war on terrorism. But there is a war on terrorism and it is producing new dangers and new restrictions for the press. Some of those restrictions we see very close to home.
In the U.S., the Bush Administration practices greater government secrecy. It has put new limits on public access to terrorism and immigration proceedings. And it also now almost routinely denies requests under the Freedom of Information Act, thus subverting the intent of a landmark law that previously could be very successful in shaking loose information from reluctant government officials.
Those curbs on access to information are of great concern to U.S. journalists and to their U.S. audiences. But what's happening here in the United States is also part of a larger and very worrisome trend that my organization has documented around the world.
CPJ monitors press freedom conditions in over 100 countries, and in the past two-and-a-half years since the September 11 terrorist attacks we've seen the growth of a troubling new international climate. It's a climate in which it has grown easier for the foes of press freedom to curb independent reporting in the name of fighting terrorism or defending national security.
In some places this takes the form of overt new restrictions, like anti-terrorism laws, many of which threaten curbs on independent reporting. In some cases these laws have been used very aggressively.
In Morocco, for example, a country that was long known for its relative tolerance of critical media, the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablancatriggered a harsh crackdown on the media. Days after those bombings, a new anti-terrorism law was pushed through the Moroccan Parliament, granting authorities broad power to shutter newspapers and detain media. In short order four Moroccan newspapers were closed and five journalists detained or imprisoned.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the government of Vladimir Putin has taken full advantage of terrorism fears to punish media that speak critically, particularly about its conduct of the war in Chechnya. Particularly irksome to President Putin was the media's criticism in late 2002 when the government tragically botched its handling of the hostage-taking by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater. At least 120 civilians died when Russian forces stormed that theater, and in the flood of media criticism that followed, Russian authorities decided to pressure broadcasters to sign a vague document called an anti-terrorism convention.
In so doing, Russian broadcasters were promising to curb their coverage of terrorism and anti-terrorist government operations, so now in the event of future terrorist tragedies, the media would no longer play a strong watchdog role in reporting on government action.
Morocco and Russia offer a couple of concrete examples, but not all of the changes that we're seeing are in the form of written laws or regulations. The global press freedom atmosphere is increasingly chilled by verbal attacks, like those that we hear from the U.S. military, which has recently kept up a very steady drumbeat of criticism against Arab television. Their particular target is Al Jazeera, which now reaches an audience of 35 million people in the Arab world.
And what effect do you suppose it has when the U.S. Government says that it is insensitive to show that American soldiers are coming home from Iraq in coffins, or when the reading of names of dead soldiers on television is attacked by some as a political statement and not news? These are some more examples from our own backyard, where we can and very much do have lively debates about the appropriateness of publishing those coffin photos or the reading of the names of the fallen soldiers.
But while we're debating these things domestically, it's important to remember that we are also setting an example. The world is watching us, whether it's how U.S. soldiers treat prisoners in Iraq or, on the press freedom front, how U.S. authorities deal with sharply critical media.
In that regard, press freedom suffered a severe blow a few weeks ago when U.S. authorities in Iraq closed al-Hawza, the fiery newspaper of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That newspaper closure seemed like pure instinct, because remember that governments try to block or hide criticism or bad news.
In this case the authorities who decided to stop al-Hawzaseemed to willfully ignore one of their stated purposes for being in Iraq, which is to bring democracy and human rights to the Iraqi people.
If al-Hawzaprinted false information, if it castigated the American presence in Iraq and charged that the U.S. was more interested in oil in Iraq than in deposing Saddam Hussein, there was certainly a better way for U.S. authorities to fight back against that: fight with words, debate ideas, and maybe most important of all, give the Iraqi people a strong lesson in the importance of tolerance in building democracy.
Instead, the lesson of al-Hawzawas this: censor your enemies. And with that kind of lesson, it's not hard to imagine how press freedom is going to fare after June 30, when sovereignty is to be handed over to Iraqis.
I've talked about some of the restrictions resulting from the war on terrorism. Let me turn finally to the other element of this discussion, and that is the new dangers for the press, meaning the physical dangers that reporters, photographers, translators, and others are experiencing as they attempt to gather the news in Iraq.
Twenty-five journalists have died in hostile acts since the war began last year. In 2003 during the war itself and the first months of its aftermath, nearly all of those who died were foreign correspondents. But since January 2004, every one of the 12 journalists killed was an Iraqi, and so were at least six others who have been killed this year—translators, fixers, and security guards who worked with the media.
One thing that these numbers tell us is that increasingly Western news organizations have had to rely on the Iraqis that they've hired and trained to go out and do much of the news reporting for them.
In recent weeks, for example, it has been virtually impossible for Western correspondents to enter Falujah because of the great and violent threat there to all foreigners, not to mention to the Iraqis themselves who are living in Falujah.
So the reports that you've seen or read from Falujah were almost certainly based on the reporting of Iraqis who were doing much of the legwork, or on the reporting of Western correspondents who traveled with coalition troops, because the situation is now so dangerous in some parts of Iraq that the military has revived the embedding program that it used last year during the most active part of the war.
The list of dangers in Iraq to journalists, to foreign correspondents as well as to Iraqis, is mind-boggling. Bandits want to steal their satellite telephones and television cameras. Insurgents have kidnapped or detained several Western correspondents, though none is being held at the moment.
Meanwhile, insurgents have threatened, attacked, even killed Iraqis who are working with the Western press, claiming that they are traitors to their country. And U.S. soldiers often view Iraqis working for Western media with great suspicion. In several cases the U.S. military has detained and harassed them. At least seven journalists of the 25 killed since the beginning of the war have been killed by U.S. fire.
An American correspondent based on Baghdad told us the other day, "Everybody who is here, every single day, is at mortal risk." The risk is so great that some journalists have hired armed guards, while others believe that for journalists to move around Baghdad with armed guards only increases their risk because it makes them look more like combatants than the neutral observers that they're supposed to be.
Italy recently sent in an evacuation plane to take some Italian journalists out of Iraq, and journalists from other countries have pulled out of Baghdad as well. But American media companies are very reluctant to leave, even though they review the risks involved every single day.
Why should the dangers that these journalists encounter while they're trying to report this story concern us? Because of what we would lose if the foreign correspondents, the Iraqi journalists, and the other Iraqis who are helping them were not willing to take that risk and get this story reported.
For example, how many Iraqi casualties have there been in this war? To the extent that we know anything at all about those numbers, we know it from the media's reports and certainly not from the U.S. military, which only keeps track of its own body counts.
What about the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that are being spent on this conflict? If there are issues of questionable spending, of cozy government contracts, we'll learn that from the media and not from the U.S. Government.
What happens in Iraq and what has happened in Iraq affects the U.S. Presidential elections, it affects America's future relations with its allies, as well as its reputation throughout the Islamic world. These are all issues that demand accurate information and independent analysis. Military briefings and government pronouncements are not enough. The press has to be there, and it has to be able to do its job, despite the new dangers in this latest conflict in the war on terrorism.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: I would like to just ask you about the other kind of censorship, not censorship imposed by the administration but that which seems to be increasing by the press itself.
You alluded to the incident with Sinclairwhich decided to have something else aired instead of all the names of those who have fallen. There's Fox Television.
What has happened to the American press after 9/11 in terms of its own desire to report news impartially?
ANN COOPER: Your question is a little beyond my purview because we deal with international press freedom issues. As a major consumer of American news, I'm often dismayed by what I see in the press. There's certainly a perception that much of the media is pulling its punches, that it does feel, for whatever reason, nervous or reluctant to be too questioning, too aggressive.
One of the most interesting things is how combative everybody seems to be over the media coverage of this war. At Bush's press conference recently I heard people who were highly critical of the press for being too aggressive and others who said, "What a bunch of softballs." People said that there were accusations that all of the reporters submitted their questions in advance and Bush only called on the ones that he wanted to answer. I don't think that that happened, but here were two completely different perceptions of that press conference and the role that the press was playing.
The media has become a major part of this story. Part of that may be because a number of news organizations have hired people to cover the media on an ongoing basis, and maybe we're just reading a lot more about it. But I have never been so conscious of how different media covers a particular story; for example, the contrast between the war coverage and the aftermath in Iraq as seen in the Arab media versus the way it was seen in the U.S. media.
During the active war period in Iraq, there was a great love affair with technology and embedding, and being right there on the front lines, and all of the footage that was sent back, and sometimes we didn't even have a context for what we were looking at.
The net effect was that the U.S. media was focused far more on the U.S. military, whereas Arab media were giving people images of civilian casualties. They showed images of U.S. POWs and the corpses of American soldiers. That created a controversy. How could that be controversial? These are things that happen in war. It's like the reading of the names or the photos of the coffins. I don't understand why people don't understand that that's part of the story.
QUESTION: You mentioned something about the press being politicized or at least looked upon as having a political role in this war, particularly in regard to the pictures about caskets coming back draped in flags or the names of the deceased.
Back in the Korean War era, the Todayshow had a list of the names of those killed every morning with photographs of people.
What has changed is that the press is seen as much more adversarial, and that has happened since the Vietnam War era. So that whereas even in World War II there were a number of pictures of the bodies of soldiers killed in action, the press was not seen as being part of the antiwar campaign, which it was in Vietnam and is now seen in this conflict.
Where are you getting the standards on which you judge that there's less press freedom now? The press has always been guided, controlled, excluded. We've had an era where the press has particularly, again since the 1960s, asserted itself as saying, "We belong there." "In the middle of a protest in the street, we belong there, and you can't hit us with a billy club even if we're in front of you."
What guideline are you using to say we've had less press freedom?
ANN COOPER: You're absolutely right. There have been attempts to control the press in some way or another since the press began, and in any given year you see improvements in some places and a worsening in others.
What we see that's different right now is almost more a climate, it's the comments that are made, it's the closing of al-Hawzaand that that's perfectly okay. But look at it in the context of an America that says that it's in Iraq to deliver democracy and an era of greater freedom, including press freedom. But then they close a newspaper, and that is not the only action that has been taken against the press. Al Jazeera and al-Arabia have been suspended from time to time by the Governing Council.
Here we are supposedly about to turn over sovereignty to this country where already in this short new era a pattern has been established that you curb the media. You don't like what they're saying, and how do you deal with it? You suspend them or you shut them down.
Much of it is an atmosphere. It's many statements that have been made since September 2003, and Condoleezza Rice calling up the network executives to plead with them to not run tapes of Osama bin Laden, doing it in a very high-profile and blatant way. It wasn't an order. That would have been totally outrageous. It was a conference call. There's definitely a pressure in that.
It's certainly not the same thing as Robert Mugabe sending in thugs to close down the Daily News. There's a difference, but journalists definitely feel the pressure, and that has an impact on when they sit down to write, even if they're not consciously thinking about it. All of these things become internalized.
The greatest press freedom problem in the entire world is self-censorship in every country, it's something that's very hard to deal with.
JOANNE MYERS: The press corps in the international situation used to be like the Red Cross. It was above the conflict, apart from the conflict. And now you talk about the deaths and being the target. What has changed?
ANN COOPER: I'm cautious about saying that journalists are a target in Iraq. The foreign correspondents are targets because they're foreigners. Iraqis are targets when it becomes known that they're working with the U.S. media. But our understanding is that this has much more to do with, you're helping the U.S., which is occupying our country. It's not so much in direct reprisal for the story that they wrote in this morning's New York Times, for example.
We've heard anecdotally that in the round of kidnappings in April 2004, about a half-dozen journalists were held for some time. There were several more who were detained more briefly, and we've heard from some of them that when they talked to the people who captured them and said, "I'm a journalist and this is why I'm here and I'm not part of the conflict," that then they were let go.
At the end of each year we put out a list of journalists who were killed because of their work; and while last year 13 journalists were killed in Iraq, there were 36 total killed around the world, and most of those were journalists who were hunted down and killed locally in their own countries, very much in direct reprisal for the work that they were doing.
Some of the countries where this is a particular issue are Russia, the Philippines, and Colombia. We see journalists murdered every year in those countries by criminal mafias or local politicians, the thugs working for local politicians. It's quite clear that they want to silence that specific journalist because of the investigative reporting that he or she has been doing.
Unfortunately, in those three countries and most others where murders of journalists are a problem, the murderers get away with it. There are seldom good investigations and almost never is anyone brought to justice, or if someone is brought to justice, it might be the gunman but not the guy who ordered the killing.
QUESTION: I've been interested to follow the U.S. coverage of this recent situation with regard to the Iraqi prisoners and their dancing around the use of the word "torture." The favorite term of reference is "torment," whereas the international press has not hesitated to designate the actions as torture.
My question relates more to the dangers and restrictions of the press in other hot spots like the Congo, Northern Uganda, Sudan, and other areas of civil war and genocide. What's the impact of the war of terrorism in these regions?
You mentioned insurgents and rebels kidnapping journalists and other actions of that nature. How do journalists protect themselves these days quite concretely from those types of actions?
ANN COOPER: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, Sudan, I don't know whether there are specific anti-terrorism laws affecting the press. I know that an Al Jazeera correspondent was thrown out of Sudan recently for reporting from Darfur.
What often happens, what we saw very early on mostly in 2002, was that some leaders in different places—Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Putin in Russia—grab on to some American rhetoric and incidents, like the Condoleezza Rice phone call, which in the end maybe didn't have any great impact on the U.S. media. But there were statements made in Zimbabwe and Russia and by other leaders around the world saying, "Hey, look what's happening in the U.S. They can tell their media what to do, so don't come complaining to us that we don't have press freedom."
Mugabe's government started calling journalists terrorists at one point, and his information minister made a statement saying, "If the great democracy, the United States, can be curbing its media, then we can do that too."
Even if something doesn't have a great impact on press freedom here, it may send a signal or become an excuse for other leaders. So it can have repercussions more widely around the world.
In terms of how journalists are protecting themselves, there's quite a difference today from 10, 15, 20 years ago for journalists who are covering conflicts. First of all, there's technology. It's a lot easier to file from conflict zones, which is good and bad. It means you can get your story out on your sat phone without having to spend half the day finding a Telex.
But it has also pushed journalists to take some risks that they might not have taken otherwise.
When I was in Africa in the early 1990s, I covered Somalia, I was in Rwanda, I was in the DRC during the Rwandan refugee crisis there. One of the differences I see is the technology; the other is the hostile environment training that journalists can get. This is mostly done by retired British soldiers. There are several private companies that have set up training sessions. Before the Iraq war, every major American media outlet and many European media companies sent all of the people who were going to cover the war to hostile environment training.
You learn things like how to recognize a land mine, how to deal with guys with guns at a checkpoint. If you're kidnapped, how should you react, how should you talk? They put you through real-life situations. You are suddenly kidnapped, and then afterwards they tell you, "At this point you would have been dead, based on what you said or how you reacted."
At CPJ last year before the war we put together a journalist security handbook which talks about the training, how to purchase body armor, how to conduct yourself in conflict situations. Probably the most valuable part of it is just listing lots of resources to get yourself prepared before you go.
The situation varies from place to place. You've seen the press driving around in cars in some war zones with "TV" in big letters on the top of the car or on the hood, maybe "Press" written on their flak jackets. You don't see that in Iraq though, because there's so much banditry. On the roads into Baghdad, lots of people were held up and had all their equipment and money stolen.
And things shift from time to time, like should you get an armored car for Iraq or is it better to drive around in a beat-up car where you're under the radar, and nobody is going to notice you? Is it better to have a compound with your own armed guards watching and providing security, or to be in a hotel where the press is all together? There was the hotel period, then people went out to houses, and now many people have gone back into hotels because they consider that to be more secure.
One of the issues that we've been wrestling with is the lack of accreditation for journalists. Journalists working in Iraq are carrying whatever accreditation they have from their media company. I'm told that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did come up with an accreditation card, but it has your passport number, your social security number, all kinds of information that would be valuable for somebody to get on the Internet with and wipe you out financially.
So nobody wants to carry that, and in addition it's conceivable that having a CPA card would make some people think, who are you really? Are you a spy? There's no neutral entity that could do accreditation, and there have probably been some instances where if there were a good, neutral accreditation system, journalists would not have been attacked or kidnapped.
There was one terrible incident in August 2003. A Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, who worked for many years in Hebron, was sent to Baghdad. On the last day of his assignment there (he was initially at Abu Ghraib Prison reporting on the aftermath of an attack), he got in his car to leave, and drove away just as a coalition tank convoy was coming down the road. Mazen got out of his car, after driving fast and stopping rather suddenly. He hoisted the camera up onto his shoulder, and was shot by a soldier on one of the tanks who said, "I thought he was putting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder."
You can say it shouldn't have happened, the soldier should have distinguished between a camera and an RPG launcher. This is a terrible war and people are very nervous, so you can see how that sort of mistake could happen. What if Mazen had had "Press" written on his car or credentials around his neck? He didn't, and the reason he didn't is that nobody does in Iraq because they feel that it makes them more of a target. In this case it might have saved his life.
QUESTION: You've mentioned the trouble that the two satellite networks from Al Jazeera and al-Arabia have had, and the shutdown of al-Hawza. They encountered problems because of what has been alleged to be scurrilous propaganda. However, in line with the self-censorship you're talking about, the press organs that I read, or listen to in the case of NPR, don't quote what these people are saying. I've seen hints that indicate that they're outrageous lies.
You rightly said that we should fight with words, but your own criticism of Condoleezza Rice's conference call indicates that if the United States' official organs had tried to counter these scurrilous lies with their arguments, they would be immediately dismissed as being self-serving remarks.
Why isn't the press reporting verbatim what Al Jazeera and al-Hawza and al-Arabia are saying, the kinds of lies that I see hints of in The New York Times or The Economist?
ANN COOPER: You're probably watching a lot of footage from Al Jazeera and maybe al-Arabia. They are in Falujah and in other places where it's extremely dangerous to go these days, and throughout the Iraq conflict much of their footage has been used by Western media. It has been a financial boon for Al Jazeera.
I have seen their reporters, news executives and editors interviewed many times on American media. Their report may not be picked up and run on American TV, but there is a recognition that they are very professional journalists.
I can't watch Al Jazeera and al-Arabia because I don't speak Arabic, but we have two Arabic speakers on our staff, who say that the talk shows are feisty, which bothers many people, but that the news shows are professionally done.
There is much more emphasis on Al Jazeera of the Iraqi casualties, and it's very jarring if you look at that versus the way the war is presented in the American media. There is a lot of respect amongst American journalists and correspondents in Baghdad for the work that those Arab stations are doing.
Al-Hawzais a different matter. My understanding is that it was a mouthpiece for al-Sadr. I have no idea whether anybody in the Bush Administration ever tried to talk to that newspaper. Shortly after September 11, the Bush Administration was quite upset with Al Jazeera, and Colin Powell talked to the emir of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based and financed, and asked, "Can't you rein in this TV station?"
That's not the way to do it. The way to do it is make yourself available to Al Jazeera, which the Bush Administration did in fact do. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and probably Donald Rumsfeld all eventually did give interviews to Al Jazeera and the Bush Administration's criticism died down. I suspect that they saw that they will cover us as well; they'll let us have our say just as they let other people on the air with whom we don't agree.
So at this moment this drumbeat of criticism is reflecting a lot of frustration, and it has to be an enormously frustrating situation for the U.S. military, from the commanders all the way down to the soldiers in the field in Baghdad. But being frustrated at Al Jazeera and saying that they shouldn't be around is not the answer.
QUESTION: Is it ever legitimate to censor the press? I'm thinking about Rwanda where it is often said that had the U.S. gone in and blocked the hate radio, then maybe the genocide could have been prevented, or in the former Yugoslavia where NATO bombed the television tower. CPJ protested, but many people felt that those who were running the Serbian television weren't really journalists, but propagandists for the regime.
I don't know what the U.S. accused Al Jazeera and al-Arabia of saying when they tried to censor them. But is censorship ever legitimate?
ANN COOPER: The one case where pretty much everyone agrees was Rwanda and Radio Mille Collines.
When you look at transcripts of the very explicit commands—where to go and whom to kill—that's not journalism, that's not even propaganda.
Serbia was a much more difficult case. Beginning with Radio-TV Serbia and then in Afghanistan and also in Iraq, it has become almost commonplace that when there's a conflict, the state broadcaster will be bombed. The argument is often made that it's because of propaganda. That is simply not allowable under the laws of war. If they're part of military command and control, yes. But propaganda, however repugnant you may find it, in the strictly legal sense, is not a legal justification for bombing state broadcasters.
Unfortunately, we're in a situation where in each of these conflicts it has happened. We've protested, others have protested, others have pointed out, legally speaking you're wrong here, and the argument has gotten nowhere.
QUESTION: I was with a colleague from Venezuela today, who was saying that Chávezwill take the name of a journalist and say, "You printed this." What is the CPJ promoting or saying regarding Venezuela and the harassment of journalists?
ANN COOPER: Venezuela is a very complicated situation, in part because some of the media owners have been very actively involved in political opposition and in attempts to remove Mr. Chávez.
Over the years we have written about what Chávez does and the way he rails against the press. We've been there and done some research and written about the situation. But we've noted that it's extremely complicated. This is not the classic situation of one government leader denouncing and repressing the media. There are many other political undercurrents.
At times we've felt that the reporters going out on the streets covering the news are in a terrible position because they are caught between the politics of Chávez and the extremely vocal opposition people who are the media owners.