Protecting Reporters on U.S. Soil

The death of reporter Chauncey Bailey raises questions about the protection of journalists domestically. Abi Wright, a spokesperson for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, talks about the history of reporters being threatened or attacked for their work.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The targeting of journalists like Chauncey Bailey may be common overseas. But it happens rarely on U.S. soil and raises some disturbing questions.

Abi Wright, a spokesperson for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Welcome.

Ms. ABI WRIGHT (Spokesperson, Committee to Protect Journalists): Good to be here.

CHIDEYA: So how often are journalists killed in the U.S.?

Ms. WRIGHT: Very rarely. According to CPJ's research, the last time a journalist was targeted and murdered was in 1993. A parallel, though, is that in that case, again, it was a local journalist covering a local story. Prior to 1993, we documented about a dozen killings from 1976 to 1993. They were almost all of immigrant reporters covering their local ethnic communities.

But like the Chauncey Bailey killing, they were journalists who were not in the mainstream media, covering local community issues for community publications.

CHIDEYA: So it sounds as if you're saying the closer that you get to the roots, the higher the danger in terms of what a national reporter might do for a big paper might actually be less dangerous than someone who's really working on the ground.

Ms. WRIGHT: Absolutely. People without the high profile or protections that a large news media organization can offer are more vulnerable. And also this is something we've seen not only in the United States, but in countries around the world.

It - majority of journalists killed for their work or in reprisal for their work are local journalists covering stories in their communities, while foreign correspondents traveling overseas to cover war zones, you know, get a lot more attention than local journalists do.

Even in countries like Iraq, the vast majority of journalists who've been killed there - and we've documented about 112 journalists who has been killed since the war began there on March 2003. The vast majority of those killed are Iraqis.

CHIDEYA: When you look around the world, Latin America has been a hot spot for the killing of the journalists, Iraq now. Give us a sense of the lay of the land in other parts of the world.

Ms. WRIGHT: Absolutely. In South America - in Colombia, for example, according to CPJ's research, at least 40 journalists have been targeted and assassinated since 1992. Closer to our border in Mexico, we've documented 18 killings since the year 2000 and five journalists who've disappeared - we just don't know what had happened - what's happened to them. So even in our own hemisphere, journalism can be a very, very dangerous job.

CHIDEYA: What are the remedies then that you might suggests - or other groups like the impunity project might suggest when you have people who were trying to report the news - sometimes it's government corruption, sometimes it's, you know, you know, reporting on local crime or gangs, what do you suggest for, A, the reporters were putting themselves on the line, and, B, other government or citizens' responses to this issue?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, our help is that by putting pressure on law enforcement and government officials to seek justice in these cases, that really is the first step. And that's why the prompt arrest of a suspect in the Chauncey Bailey murder, we were, you know, we welcome that development. That is extremely rare according to our research that someone is found and charged in the killing of a journalist is extremely rare.

So tracking down those responsible for these crimes and holding them accountable in the court of law is a very important step towards correcting this trend. But I think it's - as shocking as this was and it's very, very serious when a journalist is silenced for their work. It is still extremely rare in the United States.

CHIDEYA: How do you bring it back to the community level? You must have a level of shock and dismay among the people of Oakland, the people of the surrounding areas as well as on the national level. What kinds of messages should go out either from media organizations or from local governments to people who are questioning whether or not their own city is safe for good journalism?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, it's - journalists just play such an important role in civil society. Whenever there are attacks on any member of the civil society, be it judges or prosecutors or police or journalists, it really is an attack on the community itself.

It is so important that people be found and held accountable for this crime, that there be a rapid and transparent investigation, you know, to send a message that this violence will not be tolerated. It really goes to the heart of any community and on a local level and on a national level. It says so much about the health of a community, of a democracy when people are silenced for their work as journalist. It's just - it's a troubling, troubling development. So that's why we're so relieved that quick action has been taken. Of course, we'll have to see how this all pans out. But…

CHIDEYA: Well, we…

Ms. WRIGHT: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask of one last thing. So this is a situation very unusual for the U.S. where a journalist has been killed covering a story. What do you hear about other forms of intimidation that journalists might get while covering a story? Do people ever come to you and say, I fear I'm in danger?

Ms. WRIGHT: Are you talking about inside the United States?

CHIDEYA: Yes.

Ms. WRIGHT: I would say, in the United States, we are seeing different pressures. Of course, the kinds of things - trends that get the most attention are violent attacks on journalists. But there are much more subtle means of pressuring control that go on in the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11th. For example, the climate for press freedom has changed in terms of what stories, you know, are more controversial to cover, sort of more subtle means such as that or a pressure from governments or even financial pressures for media owners. These are all very important topics as well, and they impact the coverage that we read every day as news consumers.

CHIDEYA: So what I hear you saying is basically that force - physical force is not the only form of intimidation that journalists face. That journalists seeking to cover their communities have to be aware of these financial pressures, these, you know, kind of behind-the-scenes invisible hand pressures that may steer their journalism.

Ms. WRIGHT: Absolutely. But, still, they are performing really such a critical function for their communities and for all of us in the U.S. The free flow of information is such a critical cornerstone of our country. We serve - journalists in the United States really served as an example to others. The way journalists are treated here gets a lot of attention from other governments and other regimes.

For example, when the New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in jail, you know, a lot of - that got a lot of attention from foreign leaders who would be happy to jail journalists in their own countries. So, you know, we sort of set an example. And when an American journalist is targeted in silence in this brutal fashion, it just - it sends a chilling signal about our climate here at home.

CHIDEYA: Well, Abi, Thank you so much.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Abi Wright is spokesperson for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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