Violence against journalists is not the beat any reporter relishes covering. But the events in Egypt remind us again that this profession is often hazardous to the health of its practitioners.
"There is a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo and interfere with their reporting," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted. "We condemn such actions." Change the city to any number of places around the world, and the bold-sounding statement could be issued any day of the week. In 2010, 57 journalists died in the line of duty, according to Reporters Without Borders. Of that total, 11 deaths occurred in Pakistan, the most for any country.
But, in contrast to previous years, violence against journalists covering actual wars is on the decline. The war correspondent has been glorified and idealized, but it seems the dangers of being a reporter are growing outside of battlefield conflicts.
Rather, kidnappings are up, with journalists being used as "targets and bargaining chips" in an increasing number of countries around the world, Reporters Without Borders warned.
So the image of CNN's Anderson Cooper broadcasting live from Egypt, hunkered down with lights out so as not to arouse suspicion, shouldn't have shocked. The door, he told viewers, was barricaded. The coverage was riveting, for sure. Any minute, viewers expected to hear people banging on the door, hell bent on dragging the CNN anchor off.
In this context, it is fitting that two groups that closely monitor the safety of journalists worldwide issued their annual reports days before headlines were overtaken by the turmoil in Tunisia and then in Egypt. The words were prophetic.
"Journalists are seen less and less as outside observers," stated Reporters Without Border in its "Freedom of Press Report 2010." "Their neutrality and the nature of their work are no longer respected." Similarly, the Committee to Protect Journalists also issued its report in December, making much the same conclusions. It noted that violent street protests and suicide attacks increasingly are how reporters die.
The Committee's executive director, Joel Simon, noted: "Journalists must put their lives on the line to cover a political rally, a street demonstration, or virtually any major public event. This is a deeply troubling and frankly untenable situation." So it seems, the backlash against journalists attempting to cover the story in Egypt is illustrative of a new era for news media globally.
"Significantly, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify those responsible in cases in which journalists were killed by criminal gangs, armed groups, religious organizations or state agents," stated the "Freedom of Press Report 2010." And let's acknowledge what sort of reporter is the most likely to be harmed. It is not the multi-million dollar media figure flown in to make viewers feel like a trusted friend is relaying the information. No, about 90 percent of the journalists killed each year are local reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
They are faceless and byline-less to most of the world. They are the reporters who go about their work daily, building nuanced understandings of shifting tensions in their own countries. In 2010, 127 journalists had to flee the countries from which they regularly report. And this occurred in 27 countries.
They document the undercurrents of the sort that built into the drama that overtook Tahrir Square. And once tensions erupt, it is the work of these reporters that savvy journalists will revisit to help shape their understandings.
Budget cuts to foreign bureaus have devastated the ability of U.S. news media to cover places like Cairo and all the nuances of the Middle East. One lesson for the U.S. journalism profession might be this: That's why the West seemingly knew so little about this simmering tempest. Increasingly, the U.S. media will owe a larger debt to the in-country journalists who watch such situations unfold.
President Hosni Mubarak has been in power 30 years. You can bet that it is an unsung and likely poorly paid Egyptian reporter that knows the most about his country's slide into autocratic rule. And we should pray that such a reporter remains safe.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.