CAIRO – What is a journalist? In Western media circles these days, the boundaries are blurring between online newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and Guardian.co.uk, “blogs” such as HuffingtonPost.com, YouTube’s “citizen journalism,” and the rantings of political attack-dogs of all political stripes. Sure, HuffPost has a White House press pass, but beyond that, it’s all semantics, right?
Not so in the Middle East. Here, the distinction can be a matter of life and death. Lately, well-meaning Western journalism rights groups have been invoking “freedom of the press” to defend Arab and Iranian online activists who have been jailed or harassed by the authorities. By doing so, they are undermining journalism.
Let’s be clear. Everyone should be free to express his/her opinion. No one should be detained or sent to jail for something s/he said or wrote. Free speech and human rights groups should defend those people as aggressively as possible, no matter what they said or who they insulted—assuming it meets the test of truth. But just because you put words on paper—or a computer screen—does not make you a journalist. After all, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is one of an estimated 100,000 Iranian and Arab bloggers. For journalism rights groups to defend anyone with a keyboard or cell phone camera on the basis of press freedom dangerously muddies the waters.
“At the time of my arrest I was protesting the siege on Gaza,” German-Egyptian activist Philip Rizk wrote on his blog, Tabula Gaza, after being held by Egyptian authorities for four days this spring. Rizk was one of six Egyptian bloggers featured in a March letter to Egypt’s president by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) protesting “the relentless campaign of persecution against Internet journalists and bloggers,” which, it said, was part of “an overall decline in press freedom in Egypt.”
But wait a minute. Rizk, a former NGO worker in Gaza, was arrested for taking part in a caravan of protesters drumming up support for Palestinians. What exactly does that have to do with “press freedom”? His blog does contain first-hand eyewitness accounts—what could be termed “reportage”— from Gaza, but it is heavy with messages of protest. “The time has come to react: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” says one post. And while the Egyptian government briefly pulled the plug, the blog was back up by the time of the CPJ letter (and Rizk had long since been released).
In fact, every one of the people named in the CPJ letter can best be described as an activist. Only one, Kareem Amer, was actually jailed for something he wrote, and that was a posting sarcastically headlined, ‘Swear Allegiance to President Mubarak, the Emir of the Faithful,” a title used by the successors of the Prophet Muhammad. Around here, that kind of rhetoric is associated with those stirring up confessional conflict, not journalism. He was convicted of libeling Mubarak and insulting Islam. Even fellow blogger Sandmonkey, who, in a Washington Post op-ed, condemned the conviction, says Amer’s postings were “pretty much hate speech.”
Two of the others were arrested for membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization; one is a Sinai Bedouin activist picked up for alleged involvement in an anti-Egyptian demonstration; and the fourth was taken the same day as Rizk for the same reason.
Again, we are not saying the jailing of any of these individuals is justified; free speech and human rights groups should vigorously defend them. Our point is that none of it involves journalism. This is a job for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, not CPJ.
Other Western free-press groups also conflate the persecution of online activists and political Twitterati with the persecution of journalists. “Three more journalists have been arrested since early on 20 June 2009, bringing the number of journalists and cyberdissidents detained in Iran to 33,” Reporters sans Frontiers said in a June 22nd release. If RSF equates the two groups, can the Iranian government be blamed for doing the same?
Make no mistake: Arab and Iranian bloggers and e-activists play a vital role in their respective societies. From their electronic bully pulpits, they shout the kind of things that in the past people only whispered behind closed doors.
But to lump them in with brave journalists who are being jailed, harassed, and even murdered for reporting facts—not rumor or innuendo—about government corruption, official malfeasance, and corporate misdeeds undermines efforts to bolster a free and professional media in the Arab world and Iran. And it’s an insult to those who are sacrificing themselves for that goal.