The frightening implications of journalists’ prosecutions abroad

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Wikimedia Commons)

After an Egyptian judge last week sentenced a trio of Al Jazeera English journalists to three years in prison, the British ambassador told television crews outside the courtroom that the verdict would “undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt’s stability, both in Egypt and abroad.” The next day, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the diplomat to object to his remarks. “Egypt does not need lessons from anyone,” it added in a statement.

The pushback indicates Cairo is doubling down on the unexpectedly harsh ruling, which accused the journalists of broadcasting “false news” intended to destabilize the country. What’s more, it highlights an alarming new tendency among some foreign regimes to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of prosecuting correspondents from international news organizations. The threat is distinct from non-state actors’ increased targeting of journalists in recent years, presenting new quandaries for global news organizations and their home governments alike.

Earlier this week, Turkish authorities arrested a three-person Vice News crew on terrorism charges, transferring them to a high-security prison hours away from legal representation. Two of the journalists—both British nationals—were released Thursday, though their Iraqi translator remains in custody. The Washington Post, meanwhile, still awaits a verdict in the now-concluded trial of its Iran reporter, who has been jailed for more than a year on espionage charges deemed “bogus” by the paper’s editorial board Monday. 

“It used to be that people like me would tell ourselves that governments wouldn’t dare target journalists—certainly not from major publications—that they needed us,” Washington Post Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl says. “I’m afraid what we’re seeing is a very worrying sign that governments believe they don’t need to worry about the consequences.” 

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The recent crackdowns suggest these regimes’ desire to suffocate foreign press may now trump their concerns for global condemnation or loss of diplomatic standing. Leaders in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran are not only focused on maintaining internal political stability, human rights advocates say, but they’re also leveraging their countries’ strategic and geopolitical standing as a shield with which to do so. Those factors create a double-edged sword for foreign correspondents in these nations: They are simultaneously why international coverage is so important, as well as why it is increasingly dangerous. 

If I’m an international media organization with correspondents in these countries, I’m very worried.

The immediacy of digital publishing provides a real-time window to regime abuses—one possible reason governments are dropping the hammer—and the fragmentation of media has diminished any individual outlet’s institutional clout. Industry-wide pullback from foreign bureaus, meanwhile, weakens or eliminates the local ties that often prove essential in getting journalists out of custody. “You know the places or understand the language and hopefully have people who are able to help should things go wrong,” Jehl says.

Those concurrent trends are forcing global outlets, home governments, and advocacy organizations to expand their efforts to keep journalists safe. Diplomatic engagement from various countries has had mixed results. Public criticisms by politicians, rights groups, and international media—long considered the primary deterrent to state repression—have had similarly spotty effects, providing no clear roadmap for how to respond.

“It’s disconcerting from our vantage point that this strategy, which is tried and true, really hasn’t had an impact in [Egypt and Iran],” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a CJR columnist. “If I’m an international media organization with correspondents in these countries, I’m very worried.”

While Turkey’s release of two of three Vice journalists provides some cause for optimism, it’s difficult to gauge which responses were most effective in securing their freedom. CPJ and various other advocacy organizations quickly called Ankara to release the journalists, and Vice organized a social media campaign around the hashtag #FreeViceNewsStaffThe Wall Street Journal also reported that Vice was coordinating its response with British diplomats. “Since the Turkish government will never acknowledge it took action in response to external pressure, we have to rely on correlation rather than causality in evaluating impact,” Simon adds.

A Vice spokesman declined to comment. 

Threats from state authorities are not entirely new to international correspondents, of course. Yet such action in the past rarely reached the level of formal prosecutions. “Most of the time, you’d get detained, interrogated, have your equipment confiscated, and then get thrown out of the country,” Simon says. The scenarios playing out today, however, illustrate how regimes’ calculus may change when they feel they have a political advantage, particularly over the Western nations that typically espouse human rights in their foreign policies.

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Flanked by a picture of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, brother Ali Rezaian takes the stage at the National Press Club in Washington for a July news conference. (AP Photo / Molly Riley)

“Governments in the West really believe in press freedom and badly want to see press freedom observed in different places,” says David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and a law professor at University of California, Irvine. “But they’re under this countervailing pressure from their counterterrorism impulses … . You hear pressure but you don’t really see pressure from a government like the United States, which, when it comes to Egypt, for example, is sending mixed signals.”

When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo in August, he urged the country’s leaders to pursue various political reforms, including eased restrictions on local and foreign media. But his calls came just a week after the US delivered eight new F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian military, long seen by Washington as a stabilizing force in the region. Similar situations exist in Iran, which agreed this summer to a long-awaited nuclear deal, as well as in Turkey, home to countless Syrian refugees and now a launchpad for a US-led coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS.

Few nations play such critical geopolitical roles. Then again, those that do tend to be where international news organizations are needed the most.

Diplomats’ great burden is to balance their nations’ concrete security interests with more abstract ideals regarding human rights, a difficulty not unique to press freedom. The US State Department, for its part, maintains it can affect regimes’ policy in both arenas at once. The agency has repeatedly criticized the governments in question through public statements or during press briefings. 

“When it comes to human rights—and we consider freedom of the press a basic human right—we don’t mince our words,” says State Department spokesman John Kirby. “We aren’t afraid to call it when we see it.”

Kirby says he doesn’t believe the recent detentions and prosecutions represent a paradigm shift for foreign correspondents’ relationship with governments. Still, the State Department has ramped up closed-door engagement with offending governments and regional partners in an effort to convince regimes to ease up. “The levers of diplomacy are different in different parts of the world,” Kirby says. “In some countries there are stronger levers and we have more influence than we have in others.”

Iran falls into that latter category. The Washington Post initially hoped that US-Iran nuclear talks would also lead to some sort of resolution for reporter Jason Rezaian, who’s been imprisoned in the country for more than 400 days. “So far, they haven’t,” Jay Kennedy, the paper’s vice president of general counsel and labor, told The New York Times in July. “And so now, we believe, the time has come to bring a very public, adversarial case against Iran, as The Post and the family and many others continue to pursue Jason’s release through other channels.” The newspaper has since escalated its public efforts to free Rezaian, successfully petitioning the UN to campaign for his release.

Al Jazeera was also originally quiet when a journalist from its Arabic channel was arrested in August 2013. “We had taken the point of view that diplomacy and common sense would play out,” spokesman Osama Saeed says. But when three others from Al Jazeera English were likewise arrested in December 2013, Saeed adds, “the decision was made pretty rapidly to escalate. This wasn’t going to go away without pressure.”

The resulting digital campaign, organized around the hashtag #FreeAJStaff, has since crisscrossed the globe. The Arabic channel journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, was released last year. One of the Al Jazeera English journalists, Australian Peter Greste, was deported in February and sentenced last week in absentia. But his two counterparts—Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian citizen Baher Mohamed—remain in custody and are appealing the court’s decision. The judge added six months to Mohamed’s sentence for being in possession of a spent bullet casing when he was arrested.

“We hope that the world’s attention does deter repressive regimes,” NPR news head Michael Oreskes writes in an email. “But sadly, that isn’t always the case.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.