03.26.11

Journalism's Kidnapping Epidemic

The Middle East's revolutions—and subsequent authoritarian crackdowns—have given rise to a new threat: an environment for reporters that's more deadly than ever before.

Ayman Mohyeldin, 32, has found himself in a number of "dicey" situations, as he puts it: war-torn Baghdad, for instance, or bombing raids in the Gaza strip. Since 2003, he has worked extensively in the Middle East, first with CNN and now as a correspondent for Al-Jazeera's English-language station. Covering Egypt's revolution, though, introduced a new and dangerous threat: being aggressively targeted by the government and its thugs.

Reporting from Cairo, Mohyeldin was briefly arrested. From outside his hotel, Mubarak supporters threatened him with knives and swords. Al-Jazeera's local bureau was shuttered, and Mohyeldin took to traveling without his press badge, work visa, and business cards. He even stopped signing off with his name and station when filming around crowds. "I've been in a lot of conflict zones where I know the risks that are being faced by journalists," Mohyeldin says. "What we're seeing now in the Arab world is the government treating Al-Jazeera as an enemy of state."

As a primary source of unfiltered news in states where regimes are increasingly obsessed with suppressing it, Al-Jazeera, like other news organizations, has been in authoritarian crosshairs during the so-called Arab Spring. In Yemen this week, its offices were raided and shuttered, its journalists threatened and attacked. An Al-Jazeera cameraman was killed when his crew was attacked on the job in Libya, where four of its employees are currently detained. "Clearly, many [regimes] feel that the free flow of information poses a serious challenge to them. Not just in terms of their own populations having a wider lens on what's going on in their country and what the regime is doing, but also in terms of the outside world finding out about the momentum of the protests," says Abderrahim Foukara, the bureau chief for Al-Jazeera Arabic in Washington D.C. "Living in a global village, people feed off each other."

In the Middle East this year the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented over 300 cases of what it terms attacks on the press — killings (five journalists have died), attacks, detentions, threats, and equipment confiscation. "You think of it, they've done it," says Mohamed Keita, the CPJ's advocacy coordinator for Africa, who has been monitoring the issue. "And when I say 'they,' it's pretty widespread. Perhaps not every country in the region, but most… It's without a doubt the most dangerous region in the world for journalists today."

In Libya alone, the CPJ has documented more than 60 attacks. Four New York Times journalists were released this week after nearly a week of brutal captivity, and journalists from the BBC, Guardian, and Agence-France Presse, among other organizations, have been captured and freed as well. In all, according to the CPJ, there have been two deaths, 36 detentions, and nine assaults. Six local journalists have gone missing—all after speaking out against Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Governments are targeting journalists directly, believing them to be the "quintessential witnesses" to information they're trying hard to suppress.

Keita says the primary cause of the danger in Libya and elsewhere is governments targeting journalists directly, believing them to be the "quintessential witnesses" to information they're trying hard to suppress, both from their own people and the outside world.

Internet activists have become targets, too. Widespread camera phones and Internet access has allowed even amateurs to become news sources—and put themselves in harm's way, especially in countries with little history of free speech and press. Newly minted activists may be unaware of their government's ability to track them on the web, warns Robert Guerra, who heads the Internet Freedom Project at Freedom House. "They're putting themselves at great risk," he says. "And often, they don't even know what the risks are."

Take 27-year-old blogger Ahmad Hadifa, who supported protests in Syria over Facebook. Or Mohammed al-Wadani, a young Saudi man who uploaded a YouTube video of himself criticizing the regime. Both have been jailed. "This is new. And because it's so fluid, it's really hard to mobilize responses to help people in a timely way," Guerra says.

Despite the best efforts of autocrats to clamp down on information, news has continued to flow, and democracy movements have continued to spread—whether in Egypt, where the Mubarak regime brought down the entire Internet before eventually being driven from power, or the Syrian city of Daraa, where massive protests have continued even after the press was banned and communications were choked off.

In fact, the crack-downs often seem to fuel the fire. "It has proven its counter-effectiveness," Keita says.

Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.