Guilt of an Expatriate Journalist

American writer wrestles with free speech inequity and what to do about it

CAIRO—When I arrived in the Middle East five years ago to freelance and polish my Arabic, I soon realized that journalists here couldn’t do the same things I was doing.

I knew the Arab world was often the antonym of Scandinavia in terms of human rights, but I was still struck that I could pretty much prance around writing whatever I pleased as indigenous reporters tiptoed barefoot through thorny bureaucratic briars, sometimes becoming ensnared and losing blood.

Sure, I’ve faced more challenges reporting here than I would in Denver or Pittsburgh. Egyptian intelligence thugs once followed me and other journalists to a press conference of an opposition political party. An editor at The Jordan Times newspaper censored some statements I made about Iran so as not to anger Jordan’s diplomatic corps. The editor of a Jordanian magazine removed a reference I made to the king’s relationship to Bill Clinton, whose degenerate adultery I’d mentioned earlier in the article. And I’ve been stonewalled by plenty of Arab public officials, one of whom told me simply, “My boss told me never to speak to you again.” There aren’t freedom of information statutes in Arab countries, or at least ones that mean anything.

But these minor bumps mean nothing compared to the crap many journalists here go through. If I were an Arab citizen, I’d be in jail. In several jails. In Jordan I’d be in the can for directly criticizing King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. I’d be tossed in a dank cell in Egypt for ridiculing the nation’s police forces. Qatar would incarcerate me for highlighting the country’s miserable civil liberties record (I’d do it again: Despite its five-star PR campaign, Qatar is fantastically undeserving of 2022 World Cup consideration).

That I’ve dodged the hoosegow in these nations isn’t a badge of honor. Instead, I’m pissed off that journalists here aren’t permitted to write the same sorts of stories. While it’s true that some reporters are pushing boundaries and doing investigative work in Arab countries, they’ll be the first to tell you how their armed overseers curtail their speech or worse. I’ve heard about it, and I’ve seen soldiers do it. One morning during the summer of 2006, while I was studying Arabic in downtown Cairo, I emerged from my dusty hostel to see phalanx after phalanx of riot police flooding the city’s nucleus of Tahrir Square. Egyptian journalists planned to protest vicious new press restrictions, but Mubarak’s club-wielders made it clear who had the last word.

Seeing things like this has left me with guilt that’s made me devote much of my reporting agenda to abuse of journalists—and other newsfolk should do the same. As a general rule, journalists that see newspeople with less freedom than they enjoy should cover them as a matter of course. Anywhere. This would apply, for example, to Lebanese journalists attending to harassed reporters in Jordan or the Palestinian Territories, who have much less say over what they produce.

Muzzling speech, in all its forms, is likely the single most common human rights violation in dictatorships, and journalists would do well to focus greater attention on it. (There may be no satisfying way to quantify the argument that free speech curbs are the most common civil liberty violation, but consider the single example of state-monitored daily newspapers in dictatorships: Every day reporters and editors self-censor what they create, and every day their millions of readers receive truncated, official-pleasing garbage).

Most despotic states aren’t like North Korea, where the government harasses citizens every minute of the day for every reason; rather, they are often places where one is left pretty much alone if they don’t make dissenting noise. Egypt is this way. Stay quiet and pay official bribes when summoned, and life’s a lot easier. Silencing or chilling speech is the Egyptian regime’s favorite form of abuse. Two Egyptian policemen were recently charged (feebly) in the death of twenty-eight year-old Khaled Said, who witnesses say was mercilessly clubbed to death on the doorstep of an Internet café for previously posting an online video of Egyptian police hoarding the fruits of a drug bust.

Like many news editors and producers, reporters on the ground are often more interested in stories on news-related topics than the average consumer. I’m one such reporter. But we still need more in-depth news on strangled speech. In today’s 140-character world, many reporters I know post or re-post snippets on journalist abuse, but save their full-length reporting for stories exclusively on economic or political trends. Newspeople getting cracked with government nightsticks deserve as much substantive coverage as they can get. And the public needs to see it, too.

Our press systems and economies are increasingly connected and co-reliant, and an assault on one journalist is an assault on our shared body of work and our ability to confront global challenges. “When the rights of foreign media are curtailed, our rights are threatened,” writes First Amendment scholar and Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. (Emphasis in original).

Guilt may be driving much of my coverage of oppressed journalists in this part of the world, but guilt is often a logical emotion that stems from a threatening human action or injustice. Guilt is instructive, and can be necessarily motivating. Newspeople who see an underfoot journalist should give, to the extent they can, rooftop amplification to their inner voice of guilt and to the journalist’s plight. Doing so acknowledges the solidarity all journalists feel, or at least should, and at the same time defends our collective right to file and consume news that isn’t sieved or stained by self-interested leaders.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin