In Iran, where I was born and spent the first half of my life, journalists and writers are persecuted on a nearly industrial scale; dozens of outlets are shuttered every year. Just last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, Nazanin Khosravani, a reformist writer, began serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s nightmarish Evin prison for the crime of “propagating against the system”—a charge unheard of in Israel. But why should Western audiences care about these very real injustices when seemingly authoritative “statistics” show the West—including Israel and the U.S.—to be equally authoritarian? Mr. Martin thus challenged the common moral sense of his readers, distorting conclusions they would otherwise draw from straightforward reporting on the realities of practicing journalism in free and unfree societies. Will he earn a dart from CJR anytime soon?
Justin D. Martin responds:
Some issues in journalism fire up audiences more than others. In the United States, for example, few issues enrage, politically galvanize, or push Americans into civil society more than reportage on major problems or missteps at their children’s schools. Globally, it is reporting on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine matters, that draws ire, fulsome praise, or ad hominem molotovs.
Mr. Ahmari was a critic of my CJR article that looked at the ratio of countries’ jailed journalists to their population size, and who decreed to his Twitter followers that I am “morally obtuse.”
His critique here is more sophisticated at times than calling me stupid on Twitter, so I’ll respond in turn to Mr. Ahmari’s primary concerns:
Nations’ counts of journalists should have been used in the calculations, rather than population size.
I fully agree with this criticism. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have reliable data on national tallies for working reporters in many of the countries—Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia—that jail journalists. And even if such data were available, we would want counts of how many newsmakers in each country were working for regime-owned news sources versus private organizations. For now, although the data are a bit large and cumbersome, ratios of imprisoned reporters to countries’ population still deliver some meaning. The comparison that led me to write the essay was the fact that China and Eritrea jail about the same numbers of reporters, but the former country has more than 250 times more people.
Israel was unfairly criticized.
I never criticized a “Jewish state” in my report, as Mr. Ahmari wrote, which implies that I was specifically blaming Jews for jailing newsmakers. I noted in my essay that Israel is a country of seven million that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is unjustly jailing four journalists. Actually, I did Israel a favor in my essay, because the CPJ data make Israel look worse. Their counts report that seven journalists are jailed in “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” This wording can leave the impression that Israel has incarcerated all seven journalists in its own prisons as well as that which it occupies, but this is not the case. I read every profile of these seven jailed reporters provided by CPJ, and learned that three of them had been jailed by Hamas in Gaza.
While I hate it when journalists point to their past reportage to respond to critiques of more recent work, I have impunity to do that here, because one of the primary articles cited by Mr. Ahmari that criticized my essay said I was clearly “anti-Israel” since I highlighted (not only in the current essay but a previous column) its attacks on free expression. By that metric, however, I’m also anti-US, anti-Turkey, anti-Kuwait, anti-Egypt, anti-Tunisia, anti-Qatar, anti-France, anti-Singapore, anti-Jordan, and more. To make it seem as though I’ve singled out Israel for miscarriages of free speech while giving other countries a pass is wrong. I’ve spent my professional life writing about limits to free speech in some of the world’s most oppressive outposts, and anyone who types my name into Google knows this. (In June, for example, I’m traveling to the West Bank to report on the Palestinian Authority’s regular desecrations of free speech.)
Martin gave harsher regimes a pass.