Don’t let the Islamic State usurp the press freedom agenda

March 13, 2015

There were 11 days between the first Islamic State video revealing the captivity of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and the one purportedly displaying his murder.

Those difficult days were punctuated by three statements from the militant group that has managed to capture the world’s attention. In them, IS demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed Iraqi suicide bomber awaiting execution in Jordan, in exchange for Goto; the group also promised not to kill a Jordanian pilot held captive by the group, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, if al-Rishawi were freed. Jordanian officials initially agreed to the exchange.

For a brief moment, it appeared remotely possible that Goto might live. As the world awaited news of his fate, press freedom violations around the globe continued at their usual high pace.

The decapitated body of José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, a Mexican journalist who had been missing since January 2, was found. A Russian journalist who had almost finished an 18-month sentence was handed another three years in jail on charges of insult, bribery, and deliberately misleading authorities. Five journalists were killed in an ambush in South Sudan. The journalist who broke news of the death of the prosecutor investigating an alleged Argentine cover-up in the bombing of a Jewish cultural center fled the country, fearing for his life. One journalist was reported missing in Yemen and others were attacked or detained in the days leading up to protests in the capital, Sana’a. Seymur Hazi, a journalist in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to five years in jail for aggravated hooliganism, an act the journalist’s lawyers argued was orchestrated by authorities in response to his critical reporting. And the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on the more than a dozen journalists who had been detained or attacked as Egypt marked the fourth anniversary of the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

As the events of those 11 days show, this is one of the most dangerous times on record for journalists, and the Islamic State is not the only cause. In January 2015, at least 16 journalists were killed in direct relation to their work, all except Goto working in their own countries. In other words, in the first month of this year, CPJ had already documented more than a quarter of the total number of journalist deaths recorded in 2014—and that does not account for beatings, arrests, threats, or disappearances. These press freedom abuses, most of which did not spur a worldwide hashtag campaign, frontpage newspaper coverage, or slots on primetime television, went largely unnoticed in comparison to Goto’s public execution. We were Charlie and we were Kenji. But were we also Moisés Sánchez and Seymur Hazi and Damián Pachter?

It is no secret that advocacy organizations depend heavily on the news media to raise awareness. Increasingly, in addition to traditional media, watchdog organizations use social media to galvanize citizen activists and spread their message. Both methods of content dissemination rely on the model of “naming and shaming.” Human rights groups, governments, and international bodies have traditionally publicized their research and reporting in hopes of persuading abusive governments to change their practices.

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The Islamic State also uses these tools, as many have commented, to great effect. The group’s publicity strategy includes statements to governments that utilize powerful imagery, most notably the orange jumpsuits that echo those worn by inmates at Guantánamo Bay. For the Islamic State, journalists are bargaining chips, either to elicit ransom payments from willing governments or, for countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, which publicly deny paying ransoms, as props to convey political statements or demand prisoner exchanges.

The Islamic State does not only kill foreign correspondents. Its members also kill local journalists in direct retaliation for their reporting. On May 4, 2014, two months after his kidnapping, Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim, a correspondent for the independent Sham News Network and a freelance reporter, was killed by IS (then ISIS). Ibrahim had widely reported on the presence of Islamist militants in Syria, and was involved in a group called “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” that posted evidence of the harsh rule imposed by the Islamic State and openly criticized it. To CPJ’s knowledge, Ibrahim’s murder was not filmed and distributed, and went largely unnoticed.

CPJ can document these executions and name the perpetrator, but as an organization, cannot shame the murderers. This is for two key reasons. First, unlike some repressive governments, IS appears to have little or no interest in passing itself off as an upstanding member of the global community. The difficulty of changing the behavior of non-state actors is not a new problem for advocacy groups. From Boko Haram to Mexican cartels, these groups pose a deadly threat to journalists. Since 1992, such entities have been responsible for the deaths of 31 percent of all journalists killed for their work.

The second reason is that shock value is an integral part of IS’s media strategy. Part of the world’s stunned fascination with them is that they are without shame. One thing that distinguishes the Islamic State from other equally violent non-state actors is how effective it has been in packaging its murders of foreign journalists to serve as bargaining or messaging tools of its own. Violence is their brand. Recently, while trying to explain to a friend why so many other journalist murders have gone unnoticed because of the Islamic State’s media presence, she reflected, “It’s like they want to be the McDonald’s of terrorism.” I recall meeting with the rest of the CPJ team to plan our advocacy on behalf of Steven Sotloff after he was threatened in the Islamic State’s video of James Foley’s murder. As we brainstormed potential avenues, CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney finally said: “Our job as advocates is to appeal to people’s better nature, but I see no better nature here.”

What is the role of a human rights group to document and disseminate abuse when the Islamic State is already systematically, professionally, documenting and disseminating its own abuses?

The murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Kenji Goto have forced the news industry to undertake some long overdue review. Productive internal steps have already begun, like taking a hard look at the United States’ hostage policy, or coming together, as news organizations are now beginning to do, to codify guidelines for the hiring and safety of freelancers. Other issues have become divisive in the press freedom community. Should governments pay ransoms? Are media blackouts truly effective? These are choices we can make between ourselves, and we can lobby our governments for change. But these acts are not undertaken directly with the perpetrators of the crime.

For CPJ, the challenge is to document and condemn such acts without drawing too many resources away from the many other, less public violations of press freedom—some of them in places where we have the chance to make a difference. Since 1992, more than 1,000 journalists have been killed, 90 percent of whom were local journalists reporting on local issues. It is vital to note that the deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Kenji Goto are not any less important just because we cannot conduct direct advocacy with the Islamic State. But marking them as an indicator for the way all journalists are killed threatens to drown out the deaths of too many others. In most of those cases, CPJ and other press freedom groups are the only international voices speaking out on the victims’ behalf. We cannot allow the Islamic State to dictate the press freedom agenda. If they succeed, they will divert our attention from the everyday, pervasive threats against journalists worldwide.

There are two points of action. First, while we continue to document the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State, let us not allow them to define their victims. If they mean to reduce journalists to a final image of a person kneeling in an orange jumpsuit with a knife at his neck, it is our job to remember these people for who they actually were. Carefully selecting sanitized screen grabs from terror propaganda videos might spare viewers the gruesomeness, but it does nothing to counter the essentially dehumanizing nature of the recordings.

Instead, we should show the journalists at work, or showcase the work they produced. Highlighting their achievements is an act of protest against the barbaric way they were murdered. If the Islamic State means to use journalists as a message, we can still fight back with a message of our own. We can remember them as journalists, not as headlines.

Second, we cannot lose sight of the countless other journalists at risk. We must continue to document the press freedom abuses they endure and use all available means to advocate on their behalf because if we don’t, who will?

The Islamic State released a video on February 3 in which militants burned the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, alive after locking him in a cage. After the release of the film, Jordanian officials claimed that the pilot was actually killed on January 3, weeks before the first IS film showing Goto surfaced. If true, the claim calls into question whether a prisoner exchange to save both Goto and al-Kaseasbeh’s had ever truly been possible.

With such audacious violence, it can be difficult for the public to believe in productive advocacy and negotiations. But there are still places where collective action can produce change.

When I first joined CPJ, a Vietnamese blogger named Nguyen Van Hai was in prison. Shortly after his release, he accepted CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in November 2014, in person. After an incredibly difficult summer in which our staff lost friends and colleagues, Hai’s presence gave us something to celebrate. In his speech, he said:

I have spent six years, six months in 11 different prisons. In those prisons, there remain many violations of human rights that I personally have witnessed. My presence here is a victory of the relentless efforts of communities of bloggers and human rights defenders in Vietnam and abroad, the international human rights organizations, and of the US government, who have put pressure on the Vietnamese authorities to force them to release me.

We cannot always win such fights, but local voices like Hai’s must be protected. They cannot be forgotten. They work to tell a truth that will counter the lies that their governments or groups like the Islamic State have so expertly packaged for us.

Samantha Libby is CPJ’s advocacy officer.