Don't Shoot the Messengers!

By Roger M. Williams ’56

Atwar Bahjat al-Samerai, assassinated in Iraq in 2006, was a reporter for the satellite news station Al-Arabiya.

One of the founders of an independent Bahraini newspaper is tortured and killed, the life of another is threatened, the paper’s presses smashed. When thugs invade the newsroom, the staff flees the mayhem via a fire escape.

In Belarus, a journalist, reporting protests of an allegedly rigged election, is beaten, arrested and jailed in conditions akin to torture. She escapes to Russia, and then, still fearing for her safety, flees to Lithuania.

In gang-plagued Culiacán, Mexico, malefactors toss a grenade into the newsroom of a weekly paper. The editor almost shrugs: “Where I work,” he says, “it is dangerous to be alive.”

Dramatic stuff, but everyday fare for the Committee to Protect Journalists and its executive director, Joel Simon ’86. Under Simon’s leadership, the 31-year-old nonprofit has become the world’s foremost organization working to safeguard freedom of the press, and Simon has become an internationally known advocate for the cause. If those sound like modest distinctions, they are not. Reporters, photographers, videographers and others in the media have seldom, if ever, been less secure in their ability to do their jobs without fear of repression, often in violent form.

The toll from repression is sobering. Since 1992, when CPJ began compiling a list of deaths in the line of duty, more than 890 journalists have been killed. Startling numbers of others have gone missing or been abducted, assaulted, imprisoned, expelled, censored, threatened and harrassed. In fact, by CPJ’s count, the number of reporters, editors and photojournalists jailed in 2011—179 total—represents the most in 15 years. The situation in Iraq is probably the deadliest conflict in history for journalists; more of them have died there since 2003 than in World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

Says Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former board chairman of CPJ, “There’s no question that it has become much more dangerous to be a journalist. In the past, if you had a press badge or a press symbol of some sort, it tended to protect you. Now it can be a magnet for murder.” Steiger faced a personally searing example in 2002, when the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, at work in Pakistan, was kidnapped and ultimately beheaded.

The 2007 death of Russian reporter Ivan Safronov was ruled a suicide, but CPJ pressed for a murder investigation.

Pakistan was CPJ’s single “deadliest nation” in 2011—and the year itself one of the deadliest ever from a global standpoint. Since the initial Egyptian uprising in January 2011, the “Arab Spring” has resulted in many media fatalities as well. And in perennial battle zones such as Colombia and Somalia, the sustained levels of overall violence inevitably affect people gathering the news. An Iraqi reporter for the Associated Press, jailed for two years without being charged—by U.S. authorities—summed up the prevailing situation in his country and numerous others when he told CPJ, “All consider the journalist their enemy.”

The list runs on. Governments in Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries have met increasing challenges to state power by criminalizing investigative reporting. The Philippines ranks third on CPJ’s “Impunity Index,” which assesses the ability of those perpetrating violence against reporters to avoid prosecution. A few years ago, the committee noted that, of the 13 countries on the index, the majority were democracies. Russia has failed to solve many of its press murders committed since 2000; the most publicized of those involved the intrepid investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya. China, CPJ maintains, talks a good game of media rights and reform but has seldom played one, even when burnishing its image for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The committee’s weapons for combating such treatment range across a broad spectrum of advocacy and pressure tactics. Simon sums them up: “The first thing we do is use our reporting skills to document and publicize what occurred. Our ability to get the word out quickly helps shape perceptions and puts immediate pressure on the authorities. We often follow up with open letters, ongoing blogs that track developments and—in some cases—more detailed reports and a CPJ delegation.” CPJ confronts diplomatic representatives and gives media interviews. “We sometimes ask our board members to use their high-level government contacts. In addition, our Journalist Assistance Program is ready to step in and, if necessary, to evacuate someone under threat or provide support for the families of imprisoned journalists; we’ve done that, for example, in both Cuba and Ethiopia.”

No entity is considered beyond reproach: in 2010, Simon upbraided UNESCO to stop it from “presenting a prize honoring one of Africa’s most notorious press freedom abusers”—the president of Equatorial Guinea.

Not only does CPJ act with the alacrity of a news service, it also brings to bear an impressive array of social media. One of its most important staffers is the Internet advocacy coordinator, and for good reason: a majority of CPJ’s constituents nowadays are people who work online, not in print. The committee has another, related seismic shift to deal with: the inexorable appearance, on news fronts across the world, of nontraditional journalists. These include bloggers and tweeters, students (and grannies) with cell phones and the phones’ surreptitious cameras, human rights activists, even people with ostensibly political agendas. CPJ will go to bat for all of them, if, as Simon puts it, “they are gathering news and disseminating it to the public—whether or not there’s a credential hanging around their neck.” Thanks to the organization’s nimbleness, its campaigns often follow hard on the headlines.

The mother of TV cameraman Noramfaizul Mohd Nor—who was shot dead in Somalia in 2011—stands near a photo of her son (center, in yellow and blue).

Protests are one thing, results another. In the latter category, Simon cites “advocacy over the last eight years that led to the release of 32 journalists jailed in Cuba.” Rounded up in 2003, they faced such charges as committing acts aimed at “subverting the internal order of the nation.” CPJ campaigns, Simon says, “played a role in winning the release of every one of the 32.” The last were freed in 2011, when “Cuba reached a deal with Spain and the Catholic Church. CPJ was deeply involved in advocating with the Spanish government, and I made several trips to Spain to drive home the point with the authorities there.”

He adds, “We’ve been involved in lifesaving evacuations of journalists injured while reporting in Kosovo, Haiti, Libya and Somalia. We’ve escorted journalists under threat as they fled their countries, visited journalists in prison, provided comfort and support from Ethiopia to Burundi to Turkey.”

CPJ operates with fierce independence. It accepts money from no governments—not even that of the United States. It funds its $4.4 million budget with donations from foundations, individuals and corporations. The latter include virtually all of the major American media organizations, whatever their political leanings.

Dan Rather, the former CBS reporter and anchorman of the network’s Evening News, has been a CPJ board member since its founding. (He even paid the first month’s rent for the fledgling group.) Rather told me in an email, “I’ve retained my devotion over the years because I know how dangerous independent reporting can be in most places in the world. When nobody else notices outrages against reporters, CPJ does. When nobody else provides help, CPJ does. It is a vital institution. It fuels the flame of the truth, the conviction that a free and independent press—truly independent, fiercely so when necessary—is the red, beating heart of freedom and democratic government.”

CPJ benefits from a large and celebrity-studded board of directors that’s heavy on working journalists. Current members include, in addition to Rather, several newspaper editors and television’s Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, Gwen Ifill and Brian Williams; the late, nearly revered Walter Cronkite was the honorary cochairman for 28 years. A number of directors have provided not just their names but also metaphorical muscle, joining committee missions to offending countries.

Yet despite its star power, and its achievements, CPJ operates largely under the public radar. That’s substantially because, Simon points out, “90 to 95 percent of the journalists we defend are local people working in their own countries.” Americans in trouble are, of course, not neglected, and some cases involving them have been serious—even deadly. An American of Russian descent, Forbes magazine’s Paul Klebnikov, was assassinated outside his Moscow office in 2004. Lara Logan of CBS News (who, though not a U.S. citizen, lives and works in Washington, D.C.) was sexually assaulted during the Egyptian turmoil. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Rohde of The Christian Science Monitor was imprisoned by Serbian police in Bosnia in 1995, and, after joining The New York Times, was also kidnapped and held for seven months in Afghanistan, from November 2008 until June 2009.

In Bosnia, CPJ’s personal connections may have proved decisive in securing Rohde’s release. Simon points out that Kati Marton, then chair of CPJ’s board, “happened to be married to [U.S. diplomat] Richard Holbrooke, who was in the midst of negotiating the Dayton Accords to end that war. Kati impressed upon Holbrooke the significance of Rohde’s detention. Holbooke then confronted [Serbian President Slobodan] Miloševic´, who controlled the police, and essentially threatened to torpedo the peace negotiations unless Rohde was released. Miloševic´ blinked. Lo and behold, Rohde was released.” 

Although Joel Simon had spent his entire career as a journalist, he was a somewhat unexpected choice to take over a group dedicated to their protection and evolving at a rapid rate. After graduating from Amherst, he had become a journalistic outrider, one of the ever-present pack of freelance wanderers who strike out for remote places and survive on sporadic contributions to small news outlets. Once he joined CPJ, however, Simon took to managerial tasks like a reporter to a scoop. He became executive director in 2006.

Simon is slightly built, with a gracefully receding hairline and a low-key friendliness. On the job in the committee’s Midtown Manhattan offices, he exhibits a smooth blend of qualities and skills: journalistic acumen and experience; a casualness and inclusiveness that go down well with his staff of about 30; and, above all, an obvious devotion to the news business and the welfare of the people who do its everyday work. His low key is deceptive. When fully engaged on the subjects of CPJ and its work—as, for example, in making a fundraising pitch or presenting an award—he speaks with an unmistakable intensity. Further, says Steiger, “He can be very tough when he needs to be.”

When Simon is in the office, a typical day “revolves around our 11:30 a.m. advocacy meeting, where our editorial and advocacy teams come together to discuss developments and plot responses. Should we try to place an op-ed? Mobilize our person in Brussels—or in Bangkok or Nairobi? Consider a systematic or longer-term response?” He works closely with the deputy director, who oversees the day-to-day program work. Crises arise constantly: “Every day we have a couple. For example, in late December [of 2011], our Americas program coordinator told me that a journalist in Mexico, a colleague and close friend, had been threatened by the drug cartels and was in imminent danger. We talked about how to respond and how to help him.” At the same time, Simon was wrestling with the Turkish government’s arrest of some 30 journalists it accused of abetting an outlawed Kurdish separatist group.

Simon’s childhood encompassed unusual and unsettling moments. The Simon family (his father is a successful fine artist) lived in a gentrifying but still rough area of Brooklyn, N.Y., known as Boerum Hill, and Simon says that, as a boy, he was mugged “too many times to count.” With street smarts developed on the fly, he avoided physical harm. More matter-of-factly than one would expect, he has memories of “being threatened by knives and baseball bats. Some of my friends had it much worse; one even was kidnapped. The necessary skill was an ability to determine when the situation was about to turn violent.”

Among Simon’s close friends was (and remains) the fiction writer and essayist Jonathan Lethem. “Joel brushes all that off now,” says Lethem with a chuckle. “That’s typical of him: stoical, pragmatic. We’d hand over 50 cents or a dollar, a kind of street toll” to the muggers, and that would usually be that.

Young Simon loved bicycle racing. “I was competitive at the city and maybe state levels. My teammates and I took it seriously. We’d arrive at the park at 5:30 a.m. to train, riding behind the coach driving a pace car.”
At Amherst, Simon says, “I loved being a Brooklyn kid.” Indeed, at times he felt worldly. He remembers, at freshman orientation, “somebody warning us that when we walked back from the library at night, we had to be careful. I burst out laughing!”

His years at the college saw the abolition of fraternities, an action he greeted with ambivalence. (He liked the “artsiness” of his own house, Alpha Delta Phi.) He felt no ambivalence, however, about “the overall social scene, the sense of privilege and entitlement, which I found deeply off-putting.” Academically, “I had two epiphanies at Amherst. One involved calculus. I knew I should have dropped it, and I got a D instead. I never went near math again. It was the opposite with diplomatic history. There I realized that, even though I didn’t have the same background and depth of knowledge as some others in the class, I had a lot to contribute. That gave me a huge amount of confidence.”

Recalls Andy Blauvelt ’86, Simon’s close friend, “In late-night bull sessions, whatever the topic, Joel was a notorious contrarian.” It wasn’t all just talk: “Joel and I were very involved in pushing [the college to divest of securities in companies working] in South Africa, a big issue at the time, and in behalf of gay and lesbian studies, too. Nothing very organized, but actions like a candlelight vigil on the steps of Frost Library.”

An American studies and Spanish major, Simon wrote a thesis on Chicano literature and political movements in the 1960s. “I’d barely met a Chicano at that point, but I was really into that subject and into the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Although I had my own sympathies regarding those situations, I realized I knew nothing about them.” Simon’s solution: go south and explore, journalistically. Looking for an entry-level job in San Francisco, he somehow got one by carting his thesis—all he had to show—into the office of a small bilingual newspaper. He also completed a graduate program at Stanford’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Soon he was roaming around Central and South America, sending articles on politics, travel and whatever else to the Pacific News Service and other news media. “It wasn’t a living. I was still surviving on student loans and Stanford research grants, dragging out the thesis research and writing process in order to spend as much time as I could in Latin America.” Settling in Mexico City, he wrote Endangered Mexico, a book about that nation’s serious environmental problems. His exhaustive research included “travels along the city’s sewage canals.” The Los Angeles Times called the book a “powerful corrective to the glossy travel magazines and tourist guide books.”

By then, it was the late 1990s and time to settle down. The chosen place: New York City. “I had developed a long-term relationship there with my future wife,” says Simon, “and CPJ needed a coordinator for its Americas program. In some ways, it was a hard transition to make. I’d never worked in an office, had always followed my own schedule. Two important things made the job right. I’d developed a need as a journalist to ‘make a difference,’ not just inform people a bit. CPJ wants journalists to have an impact. Second, when I closed the door to my office, looking at emails and talking to people, I could, in effect, be back in Latin America. And I got to travel a lot.”

Most of the travel involves group missions—some for reporting rather than advocacy—to trouble spots. The trouble can be uncomfortably close. “A colleague and I were in Tijuana during a period when the place was a free-fire zone, and we came back to our hotel just as police were cordoning off the scene after a gunfight. On a 2008 mission to Moscow, one of our staff members was threatened on the phone, and our chairman’s hotel room was ransacked. Sometimes the challenge is just getting there. The flight in a 30-year-old Tupolev from Moscow to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was pretty unforgettable.”

Management skills lurked in Simon’s DNA. Dan Rather calls him “a human nuclear-energy power plant of intelligence, dedication and effectiveness.” Michael Massing, a committee cofounder who continues to serve on CPJ’s board, says that Simon has a “good way of keeping calm under trying circumstances. He’s able to act quickly and diligently while improvising.”

As middle-sized nonproft organizations go, CPJ is notably dynamic. “Although CPJ was doing well before Joel became executive director,” says Massing, “its influence since then has been greatly expanded and magnified.” He points to events of the Arab Spring, which he describes as “a milestone for us in terms of our ability to be a vital repository of information about what journalists are facing in one place or another.” Adds committee staffer Carlos Lauría, “Joel is a very good strategic thinker. He makes the point to the bad guys that, if you kill a journalist, you’ll pay a high cost. In your country and many others, we have enough power to influence public opinion against you.”

Simon contends that “journalism is the only institution that can function well in an anarchic environment.” But it doesn’t necessarily fare well when anarchy ends: “Russia in the last decade provides an example. It has gone from a period of transition and open media to what we see today—media controlled or under siege”—with journalists imperiled throughout. And the absence of anarchy does not necessarily guarantee a shield: Pakistan had a functioning, democratically elected government when Daniel Pearl was killed. “All of us felt punched in the gut when that happened,” Simon says. “It was just devastating.”

Are bloggers journalists? In recent years, Simon (in the CPJ offices in Manhattan) has helped the organization decide exactly which people it will protect.

Massing also credits Simon with helping the organization decide exactly which people to protect.

As Massing observes, “The press as we know it doesn’t exist in many of these countries.” Nonetheless, the proliferation of nontraditional practitioners, there and elsewhere, is a touchy issue for CPJ. That’s due less to parochial self-protectionism than to a traditional and genuine editorial concern that what passes for news is as complete, nuanced and balanced as humans can make it. Bloggers and other amateurs do not have the obligation, training or supervision to pursue that goal; in addition, few of them can be held to account by a professional news organization.

“Some traditional journalists do object to treating those people as we treat our own kind,” Simon says, “and we still debate this issue internally. I view it as a good and necessary debate.” Uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (in 2011) and China’s Tiananmen Square (in 1989), where citizens provided eyewitness accounts and photos, have furnished cases in point. Here are two others that involved suppression rather than violence:

(1) The prominent Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei “helped publicize information about children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, made a documentary about an assistant who was arrested and has used his Twitter feed as a constant source of critical information and commentary,” Simon says. “Ai played a crucial journalistic role in China precisely because it remains extremely difficult to express critical views through the traditional media.”

(2) The WikiLeaks group released classified U.S. diplomatic cables. “We had protracted discussions about whether Wiki[Leaks] was a form of ‘journalism,’” Simon says, “and, in the end, realized that we were asking the wrong question. It is close enough to journalism that if the U.S. government prosecuted [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange for publishing classified information, all journalists would be at risk.” CPJ conveyed that position in letters to the U.S. president and attorney general.

Although Ai Weiwei and Assange & Co. stand on the radical left within their contexts, CPJ makes it a policy to ignore the politics involved. Repression and inability to do one’s job are all that matter. The committee steers clear, however, of supporting related activities, such as WikiLeaks’ fund drives.

Nowadays, Simon again lives in Brooklyn—the place he wanted years ago to get “as far away from as I could”—with his two daughters, ages 11 and 9, and his wife, Ingrid Abramovitch, an editor at the magazine Elle Décor. To stay fit and “kind of clear my head,” Simon relies on his boyhood sport of serious cycling.

What next? In terms of jobs, maybe nothing: Simon has, or at least reveals, no career aspirations beyond his plans and dreams for CPJ. He doesn’t even have a current résumé. He does have a personal project: a second book—this one, naturally enough, on what he calls “the new journalistic reality, the emerging threats to journalism and similar topics.” Offering a sort of précis of that book, Simon has this to say about the state and future of his craft: “There will always be ‘journalism’—it’s an elemental human impulse. But the kind of journalism that I started out doing is pretty much gone. It’s been replaced by a world in which it’s easier to gather and transmit information but harder to make a living at it. Nonetheless, I believe that the desire for information is so powerful and so essential to our humanity that journalism will never disappear. The inherent demand will eventually lead to new economic models that will be more stable and viable. How long will it take for this new system to emerge, and what will it look like? I can’t say.

“But I can say that, at CPJ, we’re right in the middle of redefining journalism, a bridge between the new and old journalistic culture. And we’re absolutely crucial to that process.”

Roger M. Williams is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.

Top three photos: AFP/getty images. Bottom photo: Rob Mattson.