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.
Some critics of my CJR piece were angry that Israel was criticized and that other countries in the greater Middle East, like Turkey and Iran, received some kind of national holiday. I’m aware that recent reports have listed Turkey as jailing dozens more journalists than are listed in the CPJ counts. Some of these reports are curious, however. Dexter Filkins filed a New Yorker brief on Turkey’s jailed journalists, for example, and in the report he relied on CPJ data for counts of jailed reporters in China and Iran, but then switched to the report of a Turkish organization for its numbers of hoosegow-ed newsmakers. The multinational analysis was not consistent. The Committee to Protect Journalists may have a scorching year-end report on Turkey for 2012, and I’m willing to wait for the integrity of those figures.
Data from CPJ are conservative. At the end of 2011 they counted 179 journalists in jail throughout the world. Clearly, more journalists were detained or tossed in holding cells that year, but the counts focus mostly on extended incarceration. This is why, while police in the United States tossed many journalists in jail during the Occupy protests, the US doesn’t make CPJ’s year-end list of padlock-happy countries; reporters in the US tend to be held for a few hours and then released (disgraceful, yes, but not what CPJ is counting in this particular case).
As for Iran—which is, as Mr. Ahmari correctly notes, a holy hell for journalists—its theocrats won’t give someone like me a visa, especially given that I write consistently about free speech. And I typically do not file in-depth reports on freedom of expression in a particular country until I’ve been there on a fact-finding trip at least once. I can criticize a country like Iran that won’t let me in, which can be done in 100 characters on Twitter, but it doesn’t make for an interesting thousand-word essay.
I appreciate Mr. Ahmari taking the time to critique my work. While we disagree on some of the particulars expressed in commentary, we are both still enemies of strangled speech. The charge that I was unfair in my analysis of jailed journalists per capita—or, worse, obfuscating—is as unfounded as unicorns, but I’m glad there are steeds like Ahmari willing to ride and write for free speech.
Sohrab Ahmari responds:
I commend Mr. Martin for readily conceding my central point: namely, that his per capita calculations were flawed. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Martin does not retract his rankings altogether, claiming that, in the absence of more accurate data regarding the number of independent journalists working in each country, his method still provides “some meaning.” This can be said of every statistical method. But saying so does not render fundamentally inaccurate and unreliable statistics trustworthy. A criminologist who makes statistical claims about an entire city based on crime data from a limited number of neighborhoods cannot maintain the soundness of his method just because it delivers “some meaning.” Likewise, if more precise data are needed to calculate the per capita number of journalists jailed by each country, then the responsible thing to do would be to seek such data—not to insist on claims hastily made in their absence.