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With journalism under attack, protecting press freedom is more urgent

CHICAGO – Journalism is under fire on all fronts.

For foreign correspondents covering conflict on the front lines, a certain level of risk has always come with the terrain. And hard-hitting, investigative reporting has never been for the faint of heart, no matter what country you come from.

But at a large gathering here last week of editors and executives from American and international news organizations, a broad consensus emerged that these are uniquely dark and perilous days for practitioners of the craft – not just for correspondents in simmering conflicts with distant datelines, but also for reporters in the U.S. and in foreign countries who are witnessing protections for freedom of the press steadily erode in their own countries.

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The horrific public executions of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff this summer drove home with searing clarity just how perilous it is to be a reporter in an age of terror. The arrest and recent conviction of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt has revealed how weak and arbitrary the law can be in holding up the right to a free press.

Sadly, there is no sign of this threat to journalists in the field letting up any time soon.

“This is the most deadly and dangerous period for the press in recent history,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

There is no doubt that is true. And when Western journalists are killed doing their jobs, the world seems to take notice.

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Polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans followed the news of the murders of Foley and Sotloff, covered intensely around the world and adding to a growing list of the fallen. Many of them were personal friends and colleagues – including British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, American war photographer Chris Hondros, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid, The Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin and AP’s Anja Niedringhaus who was shot to death in Afghanistan while covering the election earlier this year.

The loss to our craft has been enormous. But the statistical reality, and one that is too often obscured, is that local reporters from countries around the world are losing their lives at a dramatically higher rate than their Western colleagues. And their deaths occur with far too little global coverage or collective outrage over this killing of messengers.

According to the CPJ, 90 percent of the journalists killed or missing since 1992 are local journalists. Many of them are operating in active war zones such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or in countries seething with conflict and political unrest such as Pakistan, Mexico, Honduras, Peru and Colombia.

Out of the 70 journalists killed in 2013, about a third were freelancers, a percentage that has doubled in recent years. The number of jailed journalists has broken records since 2012, according to CPJ.

Two dozen top international editors and news executives from around the world came together this week at the invitation of the International Press Institute (IPI) to come up with ideas on how news organizations might work together to ensure greater safety for colleagues on the front lines. The group also held a session focused on an update of the case of the three Al Jazeera journalists still being held pending an appeal.

In June, three Al Jazeera English staffers, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to seven years in Egyptian prison. They were all found guilty on charges of supporting terrorism for quoting and reporting on the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which was governing Egypt prior to its overthrow in a military coup last year.

Baher Mohamed got three extra years for “possession of a weapon,” which was a single spent bullet casing he had recovered from a street protest as a souvenir. The convictions have drawn international condemnation. Although the former General and now newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi publicly expressed “disappointment” over the sentences, he has not pardoned the men. And it remains uncertain when their appeal will be heard in court.

“What they have done is unprecedented, even by Middle East standards,” said Abderrahim Foukara, the chief of Al Jazeera Satellite Channel’s Washington bureau.

“The judiciary has been unleashed to take draconian measures in a way we have never seen them act. … We have to keep up pressure on this case,” he added, speaking to the international editors gathered by IPI.

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At a larger annual gathering also convened here in Chicago, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) presented a number of important forums on the state of journalism in America. The news was pretty bleak on that front as well.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, presided over an ASNE panel that featured the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter James Risen.

Risen is being compelled by the U.S. Justice Department to testify to reveal a confidential source in his 2006 book “State of War.” Risen has refused to reveal his source, and is risking imprisonment for it.

The panel explored a chilling effect of the Risen case and highlighted new laws on the state level that are undercutting the freedom for journalists to do their job. One law introduced in a number of states would prevent journalists from taking photographs of farms and limit photographing police in action. It is a wave of constraints on the free press coming from many directions, he said.

“We meet at a time when journalism is under attack more than ever,” Policinski said.

The economic challenges facing traditional media in America are well known as television news and newspapers continue to be disrupted by the realities of a digital world. Revenue streams are drying up and newsrooms are seeing diminished resources. That has meant less investigative reporting and less international reporting. It has meant fewer eyes in the world and fewer watchdogs at home.

Risen encouraged news executives not to give up the fight for solid investigative reporting at home and abroad, saying, “The only real response this industry has to this government crackdown is to do even more aggressive investigative reporting… Double down on it. Give your reporters time to do it… It needs to be done.”

In the end Risen spoke of his passion for the work of investigative reporting, saying, “It is the only job where you get paid to stick it to the man.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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