Journalists these days are regularly being beheaded. The two most recent cases were the work of the Islamic State, which this past summer, as shown to the world on slickly produced videos, dispatched freelancers Steven Sotloff and James Foley. Such atrocities at the hands of Islamic fanatics are not novel. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, formerly of al Qaeda, now of Guantánamo, began the practice when he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Along with these and other murders, journalists around the world over the last decade-and-a-half have, in record numbers, been shot, kidnapped for ransom, imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to various other depredations. What accounts for these horrific developments, and what do they mean for the future of news reporting? These are some of the questions taken up here by Joel Simon. As executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization devoted to protecting “the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal,” Simon has been a close observer of infringements on press freedom worldwide. A former foreign correspondent himself, Simon examines not only violence against journalists, but also such topics as Internet freedom and government surveillance.
Simon argues—persuasively—that the videographed beheadings reflect the changing nature of terrorism. Until not long ago, radical groups—including even the most bloody-minded ones—found journalists to be an indispensable channel by which they could communicate their goals to the world. This gave a measure of protection to news-gatherers: “Their inherent usefulness was their best insurance policy.” But the advent of the Internet changed the equation. Journalists were no longer an essential conduit. Instead, to groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, they could be dragged into the show, to be used as “hostages and props in elaborately staged videos designed to convey a message of terror to the world.”
Exacerbating the vulnerability of reporters has been the ever-blurrier line separating them from activists. In a world in which anyone can call himself a journalist, and in which social media outlets have become a major alternative to the institutional press, the distinction “between journalists and nonjournalists has broken down . . . dramatically,” observes Simon. Weak governments contending with insurrections seldom have the disposition to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result: Journalists end up in jail, or worse. War zones, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, are even more problematic. American soldiers on patrol were frequently compelled to make an instant decision: Is that object being pointed at me a camera or a gun? If it is a camera, is he a journalist or an enemy spotter? An incorrect answer was often a matter of life or death for all concerned.
Simon explores in some detail the question—controversial within news organizations—about how best to respond to kidnappings of reporters. A common practice has been to institute a “news blackout,” with the aim of denying the kidnappers their goal of publicity and to avoid increasing the value (to them) of their victim. Thus, when David Rohde of the New York Times was seized by the Taliban in 2008, the Times managed to suppress coverage of the incident for eight months, until Rohde succeeded in escaping.
The trouble here, of course, is that the same newspaper that takes such care of its reporters has been quick to publish ultra-sensitive intelligence secrets that the United States government contends place the lives of Americans at risk. Worrying about the double standard and other drawbacks, Simon opposes news blackouts, arguing that they undermine the credibility of news organizations while there is scant evidence that they contribute to favorable outcomes in kidnappings.
If nonstate actors have been a menace to the media, states (or at least some states) are not lagging far behind. Turkey turns out to be the world’s worst offender in at least one doleful category: The country hailed by President Obama as a “strong, vibrant, secular democracy” incarcerates more journalists—most of them Kurdish—than any other country in the world. In Russia, independent journalists regularly confront violence, sometimes lethal violence, while the mass media are held on a tight leash as an integral part of Kremlin control. In China, there is no independent journalism at all, only a landscape of repression and government control of the Internet by means of technology known as the Great Firewall of China.
Joel Simon does a creditable job of describing the variety of problems afflicting journalists around the globe. For anyone interested in the state of free expression in the many corners of the world where the First Amendment does not reach, this book is a useful primer. Unfortunately, its strengths end there. Frequently in its analysis, and especially in its recommendations, The New Censorship does not have much of anything sensible to say.
For one thing, it is replete with judgments that do not seem to be thought through. Simon maintains that the American military was “callously indifferent” to independent journalists reporting in Iraq, with some 16 dying as a result. The high toll, he writes, was “the inevitable consequence of the deployment of overwhelming firepower and the failure to take into account the possible presence of journalists in the combat environment.” But should the American military sacrifice its effectiveness—and therefore the safety of its own men and women—because of the “possible presence” of journalists on the battlefield? Perhaps there is an argument for such a policy. If there is, Simon does not make it.
On the issue of government surveillance, Simon’s analysis falls short in a different way. On one hand, Simon provides an eye-opening portrait of the way authoritarian regimes engage in surveillance to suppress their subjects. But he also joins the chorus of voices warning of the dangers posed by the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency being used on an “unprecedented—perhaps unimaginable—scale,” and which we only know about thanks to Edward Snowden. Simon urges citizens to stand up against such activities and “to keep the pressure on governments, authoritarian and democratic alike.”
But Simon is here eliding a fundamental distinction. Authoritarian regimes engage in surveillance to destroy freedom. Democratic governments do so to protect it. Of course, democratic governments have at times overstepped in this activity; but to conflate authoritarian and democratic regimes in this way disserves the very cause of freedom that Simon aims to defend.
Finally, Simon places an absurd degree of stock in the ability of international institutions such as the United Nations to address the problems he describes. He calls for the clarification of the fuzzy provisions in international law that forbid “incitement to violence” against members of the media, and he applauds the U.N. Security Council for establishing an “International Day to End Impunity” for attacks on journalists, calling it a major “victory for journalists and press freedom advocates around the world.”
None of this is going to save a single journalist from being beheaded or imprisoned. Press freedom is not divisible from freedom in general. Expanding the zone of freedom in the world may not be a simple proposition, but empty U.N. declarations, enacted with the concurrence of all the world’s worst dictatorships, are not the way forward.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author, most recently, of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account.