Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: In praise of journalists who risk all

Ali Rezaian, left, the brother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, rallies with supporters to deliver a petition of 500,000 signatures on Dec. 3 to Iran’s United Nations mission asking for the release of his brother from prison.
Ali Rezaian, left, the brother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, rallies with supporters to deliver a petition of 500,000 signatures on Dec. 3 to Iran’s United Nations mission asking for the release of his brother from prison. The Associated Press

Every year at this time, media organizations publish lists of the number of journalists imprisoned, missing, murdered or held hostage around the world.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 69 journalists had been killed worldwide in 2015 as of Dec. 7, and there were 199 behind bars on Dec. 1. That doesn’t include journalists who disappear or are kidnapped by criminal gangs or jihadis. Reporters Without Borders said this month that 54 professional journalists are currently being held hostage, mainly in Syria, Iraq or Yemen.

The numbers remind us of the immeasurable bravery of journalists who report from Mideast conflict zones or investigate drug rings in Latin America or corruption in China. As serious U.S. journalism is being eclipsed by digital infotainment, we should pay tribute to journalists who still risk their lives in places most Westerners dare not go.

No one deserves that tribute more than Ahmed Mohamed al-Mousa, a Syrian citizen journalist who was killed by a masked man in Idlib this month. Mousa was a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of young Syrians determined to publish online information about the crimes of the Islamic State in their hometown of Raqqa, the home base of the so-called jihadi caliphate.

There are no normal Wi-Fi or satellite connections in Raqqa, and if there were it would be a death sentence to use them. But somehow these brave young Syrians – most of whom were students, professionals or businessmen before the war – are finding ways of getting information out.

Last month, a co-founder of the group, Abdelaziz Al-Hamza, made it to New York City to accept CPJ’s 2015 International Press Freedom Award on behalf of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

In his acceptance speech, Mousa said: “Maybe we’re not professional journalists, maybe we’re only ‘citizen journalists.’ We don’t care a lot about labels. We just want to prove ourselves on the ground as a force facing the most brutal regime (of Syrian president Bashar) Assad, and the most dangerous organization, ISIS.”

Mousa escaped Raqqa under death threat. But the Islamic State kidnapped his father in Raqqa and sent Mousa a video, telling him to stop his journalistic work. He didn’t. Then they sent him a video showing them murdering his dad.

I asked Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for CPJ, what drives a journalist like Mousa to make such huge sacrifices.

“They just want to document what is happening, to tell the world,” he said. “No one outside cares about Raqqa because the story is not being told.”

Not surprisingly, Syria was the deadliest country for journalists in 2015, with 13 dead. The determination of Syrian citizen journalists to carry on – despite being hunted by both the Syrian government and ISIS – is almost past understanding. Next most deadly this year were France (where nine journalists were killed in terrorist attacks), Brazil, Bangladesh, Iraq and Yemen.

As for jailers of journalists, China wins that dubious prize for the second year in a row, with 49 behind bars. In supposedly democratic Egypt (23) and Turkey (14), the numbers of imprisoned journalists nearly doubled over the past year as their elected presidents moved to muzzle dissent.

But Iran, No. 2 on the list with 19 journalists in jail as of Dec. 15, has been on a roll in muzzling the media this year. Hard-liners are trying to prevent media from calling for reforms in the wake of Tehran’s nuclear deal with the West – and as parliamentary elections draw near.

One of the most egregious cases involves an American citizen.

I refer to the continued, wholly unjust imprisonment of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who marked 500 days of detention in the notorious Evin prison on Dec. 2. This grim milestone surpasses the bleak stats for the U.S. diplomats who were taken hostage in 1979 during the Iranian revolution; they were released after 444 days.

Because Rezaian is an Iranian American, Iran insists it can hold him as one of its own. In a farcical proceeding, he was tried behind closed doors on vague charges of espionage and sentenced last month. But no one knows for how long because his lawyer wasn’t even allowed to be present.

Despite hints of his likely release from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, architect of the nuclear deal, Rezaian remains in Evin. (Unfortunately, Rezaian’s release wasn’t directly linked to the deal.)

Rezaian (and at least three other Americans being held) are pawns in the rivalry between Iranian reformers and hard-liners, I was told by Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group.

If that is the intent of Iranian hard-liners, and they continue to hold Rezaian hostage, they may well succeed.

The fate of Rezaian will signal in what direction Iran is heading. And it reminds us of the debt we owe to journalists who still report full time from the world’s most difficult spots.

Trudy Rubin can be contacted at trubin@phillynews.com.

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