As a reporter who worked for many years covering wars and working in what are euphemistically called “conflict zones,” I had a little mantra I used every time I got on the plane leaving the United States. As the cabin doors closed, I would sing silently in my head, one of my favorite gospel songs, The Staples Singers’ “This May Be the Last Time.”
I was able to systematize this invocation of death for one good reason: I was very confident it wouldn’t happen to me.
This serene over-confidence carried me through more than 25 years of theoretically exposing myself to grave danger, although I can honestly confess that only once did I know that the chance of being shot by a sniper during the Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia, was not theoretical, but very real. And typically, this is a realization I came to only after the fact.
This is a tribute to good luck and better timing. When I was reporting from war zones, from 1977 to 2004, very few people wanted to silence, much less kill journalists. They needed us. The good people and even the very bad people did. They needed to keep us alive so we could tell their stories to a wider world.
Then, along came the Internet, and very few people needed us that way at all. They could tell their own stories on line, or using their ever more ubiquitous cell phones they could call in their own versions of events to reporters or allies or audiences of their choice. To the degree that our media credentials gave us power or credibility, we were competition, an annoyance or an enemy. Over the last 10 years, the death rate for journalists has been on a rising curve.
There are other factors involved in this trend: the surge in death-dealing weapons across the world, the increasingly fundamental or fundamentalist nature of the conflicts newspeople cover, and a rising tide of impunity granted by more and more brutal governments to themselves and their hired killers.
But in recent months many journalists have identified a new cause for fear: the openly expressed contempt, disrespect and rage turned against journalists by the President of the United States. When Donald Trump called respected news organizations like The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, purveyors of “Fake News,” and called respected journalists “Enemies of the American People, he may have been just venting his frustrations at what he sees as unfairly critical coverage. But to many people around the world, with a grudge against journalists it sounded like a signal. The Leader of the Free World, the traditional Protector of the free press sounded like he was saying – “Go get ‘em.”
As our guest today, a good friend and longtime colleague, the Executive Director of The Committee to Protect Journalists Joel Simon wrote in the New York Times, “At a time when journalists around the world are being killed and imprisoned in record numbers, Mr. Trump’s relentless tirades … are emboldening autocrats and depriving threatened and endangered journalists of one of their strongest supporters — the United States government.”
Joel Simon joined the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 1997 as Americas program coordinator, became deputy director in 2000, and was chosen to head the organization in 2006. As a journalist in Latin America, he has covered the Guatemalan civil war, the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico, the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the economic turmoil in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Simon is the author of Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge (Sierra Club Books, 1997). His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.
Simon has written widely on press freedom issues for publications including Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Review of Books, World Policy Journal, Asahi Shimbun, and The Times of India. His analysis of press freedom issues is featured regularly in major media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and CNN.
Simon has led and participated in CPJ missions around the world, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Under his leadership, CPJ has been honored with the prestigious Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights and a News & Documentary Emmy for its work in defense of press freedom.