The hottest event of this weekend may be the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a jovial celebration of American political reporting and a rare chance for reporters and the people they cover to laugh openly about their jobs. Around the world, however, critical reporting doesn’t get a nod from the president. Instead, it lands our colleagues in prison, or worse.
“Violent conflict continues to be extremely dangerous for journalists but actually the most dangerous beat is politics,” Committee to Protect Journalists advocacy director Courtney Radsch told The Daily Beast.
More than 300 journalists remain continuously imprisoned around the world, according to Reporters Without Borders. Indeed, the worldwide climate for freedom of information and freedom of the press isn’t improving, the group’s U.S. director Delphine Halgand told The Daily Beast. The organization is just one of several groups working to protect press freedom, and is informed by a network of 150 local journalists in 130 countries.
“There are more and more authoritarian tendencies of government, and also tighter government control of media,” she said. Wars and conflicts mean there’s more on-the-ground trouble for journalists as well, the vast majority of them locals we never hear about.
And the situation is particularly bad in many American allies.
In Turkey, for instance, journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul face life sentences for reporting on the government’s sale of arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. The story that landed them behind bars built off a video said to show the state intelligence agency sending weapons to Syria, while the government insists that they were just carrying aid.
They were slammed with a 473-page indictment, and their trial will be conducted behind closed doors. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised Dundar would “pay a heavy price” for Turkey’s embarrassment.
In Egypt this week, dozens of journalists were arrested for covering protests. Most of them were later released, but Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, will mark 1000 days of imprisonment next month. He was detained covering protests over the ousting of former president Muhammad Morsi three years ago.
“His case is really emblematic because he was covering a protest of the Muslim Brotherhood and he was arrested,” Radsch said. “He was imprisoned for nearly a year without charges, and then charged with being affiliated with a terrorist group and being involved in terrorism.”
And in Azerbaijan, investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova is spending her second year in prison after exposing government corruption. Some of her earlier reporting that landed her in jail has been confirmed by the Panama Papers leaks.
“Her case is emblematic of another type of charge used to imprison journalists: these trumped up charges of hooliganism or drug use,” Radsch said.
The president who imprisoned her was feted by Vice President Biden on a visit to Washington last month, but Halgand says such meetings are an opportunity for change. “We know that pressure works because just before President [Ilham] Aliyev came he freed 148 prisoners,” she said.
Much the same is true of the Americas, where violence against reporters is not decreasing. Our colleagues continue to be slaughtered, “especially when they are covering drug cartel activities or corruption,” Halgand said. In countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, there’s mounting political tension that keeps journalists at risk.
But while safer than many of our neighbors and our allies, Halgand isn’t ready to let the United States off the hook. The very administration that will celebrate alongside reporters this weekend has been one of the most tight-lipped, and one of the most diligent in prosecuting those who leak information to the media.
“Our main concern continues to be the administration’s obsessive control of the flow of information, which manifests itself in the war on whistleblowers,” Halgand said. She cited the case of Jeffrey Sterling, who was sentenced to more than three years for providing information to The New York Times’s James Risen.
And then, there are Americans overseas. There’s Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent who was just recently released after more than 500 days of detention for doing his job. At the Overseas Press Club awards Thursday night, Rezaian lit the candle of concern for journalists in peril.
And perhaps most famously, there’s Austin Tice, a young American who disappeared almost four years ago in Syria. An ex-Marine, Tice achieved his dream of being a war correspondent only to be kidnapped days after his 31st birthday. He’s still missing as we celebrate.
“Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13,” he tweeted before vanishing. “They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.”