All our committees do good work, but some get more “press” than others. Google search SPJ and you’ll get tons of hits for our Ethics Committee and the Freedom of Information Committee. At the same time, other volunteers toil quietly but to equally great effect.
This year, the International Committee has fielded a minefield of requests. The Arab Spring notwithstanding, it seems journalists from around the world have reached out to the Society for guidance, affirmation, even protection.
Maybe I have an affinity for this group because, well, my name isn’t Mary Smith. But as I’ve travelled throughout this term, I’ve found many of you equally interested in furthering a free press outside our borders even as we fight to hold on to those rights under attack from within.
So I have found myself fielding interviews for the Voice of Russia, answering questions from journalists in China, Wales, New Zealand and Spain, and issuing statements on behalf of journalists in the Middle East. This is a tiny microcosm of the work the committee handles weekly.
That work personified itself in May when a slender young man walked into my office at WCPO-TV to talk about journalism from a perspective foreign to most. Muhammad Imram watched the birth of a free press in Pakistan after years of government control. Now, he’s watching friends die on the job.
Imram is only 28 but serves as his station’s news anchor and assignment editor, which he says is the person who runs the entire newsroom. He supervises a crew entirely within a decade of his age, with no prior example of how to do journalism. Until 2006, Imram says there was no independent electronic media in Pakistan, only one state-owned television station and one state-owned radio station. A new regime opened the doors and now, almost 100 outlets operate in four languages.
Imram came here on a one-month U.S. government-funded program that immersed Pakistani journalists in newsrooms including ours so they could learn about the profession, from the guts of journalism to new media and the latest camera equipment. By the time you read this, he’ll be back home to pass along his knowledge.
While many of his questions spoke of challenges you’d hear from anyone growing up and learning the trade here, I found his biggest challenge to be both universal and unique. The issue seems commonplace: how to balance a story. It’s the reason he cites as the challenge that departs from the American experience. It’s not that Imram or his compatriots don’t know they need to offer multiple viewpoints. It’s that some sources aren’t just putting their jobs on the line if they speak; they’re putting their lives on the line. That’s a much harder sell.
Imram himself can’t go home to his native province. He works in a city hours away because he says extremists have threatened him and his family if he returns. The Committee to Protect Journalists says in 2010, eight Pakistani journalists died for work they published or aired, ranking Pakistan as the most dangerous country for journalists, just ahead of Iraq, Mexico and Honduras. Imram says one of these journalists was a friend assassinated in the middle of an assignment in Swat city.
In June, SPJ wrote a letter to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington D.C. expressing our dismay at the violence that has befallen reporters there, including Saleem Shahzad, a reporter who had written extensively on al Qaeda and the Talbian, who was killed just after he produced a story that raised questions about the relationship between Pakistani military officers and terrorist groups. Other reporters died after reporting on ties to the nation’s intelligence service, the ISI.
[UPDATE: The New York Times reports there is more evidence from U.S. intelligence linking Shahzad's slaying to the Pakistani ISI.]
In our letter to the Honorable Husain Haqqani, we asked the Pakistani government to launch an investigation into Mr. Shahzad’s murder and the violence against other journalists. Not surprisingly but sadly, we haven’t heard back.
It may seem like shouting empty words into a deserted theater, but SPJ’s calls for justice have led to results in the past, certainly within this country. In June, a jury in Oakland, California convicted two men in the 2007 murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. He had been working on a story of a financially troubled community group when he was killed as he walked to work. The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation contributed $20,000 in a grant to help launch The Chauncey Bailey Project. Our Northern California chapter then joined other media organizations to continue and expand Bailey’s work, leading to dozens of stories that resulted from competing news organizations putting aside business interests to work toward this common cause, to express clearly and loudly that our work will not be silenced, that we will stand together to find the truth and report it.
Bailey’s cousin, Wendy Ashley-Johnson, posted her reaction to the conviction on the project website. She said, “Journalists have a job to do and they should not be squashed in what they do.” True here, true everywhere in the world. Just ask Muhammad Imram, back home on the job in Islamabad.