When Journalists become Targets

By Brian O'Connor
Journalists capture footage from demonstrations in Ferguson, MO, August 18. Image: Light Brigading

Journalists capture footage from demonstrations in Ferguson, MO, August 18. Image: Light Brigading (Flickr)

News of photojournalist James Foley’s execution by ISIS has gripped the national consciousness this week, as had the arrests, tear gassing, and police assaults on journalists in Ferguson, M.O. during the week prior. While reporters, by trade, thrive in hostile and dangerous situations, the threats to which they are exposed both at home and abroad have never been more severe. Foley’s politically motivated execution sends an explicit, targeted message to the Western world and marks a grim chapter in war coverage that has little precedent, while the police response to domestic journalists covering the racially charged unrest in Ferguson marks a new era of restricted media freedom at home. The threat to journalists, who by trade seek to cast impartial light on unrest in turbulent pockets of the world, shows no sign of abating.

Foley is the first American to be killed by ISIS since the group amassed control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. The beheading, ISIS representatives claim in the video of Foley’s execution, is the direct result of airstrikes ordered by president Obama near the Mosul dam, a pivotal ISIS checkpoint where Kurdish forces have been battling with the group for two weeks.  These efforts are believed to significantly impede the group’s advance toward Baghdad, and most notably, the U.S. embassy in the city. Prior to executing Foley, ISIS claimed that this action was a direct response to new American military and humanitarian efforts in Iraq, and that the American “[…] military air force has attacked us daily; […] strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims.” After the beheading, the screen fades to black, later showing another masked ISIS fighter alongside Steven Sotloff, an American reporter also in the group’s captivity. The ISIS fighter then says, “the life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”

Human Rights Watch has published a statement which indicates that the act of killing an embedded journalist is a war crime. “James went to Syria because of his commitment to exposing the horrors civilians faced since the uprising against the government there,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “He, like the other journalists who are now held prisoner in Syria, courageously risked his life so that the world might know the truth and act to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalism, Syria is currently the most dangerous country on earth for journalists. Nearly 70 journalists have died in the country while covering its current unrest, with another 20 still missing.

The disturbing precedent for executing journalists in ISIS-controlled areas breaks one week after a wave of unprecedented arrests and harassment of journalists in Ferguson. To date, 11 journalists have been briefly detained while covering the city’s protests and unrest, being held without charge while covering citizen-driven protests in the streets and in local stores. When Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly failed to exit a McDonald’s quickly enough for police, they were harassed and shoved by tactically outfitted officers in riot gear. HuffPo’s Washington bureau Chief Ryan Grimm spoke about the incident with TalkingPointsMemo, saying, “this is what happens when local police are allowed to become para-military units.”

The military tactics of Ferguson’s police have been well-documented, both by journalists on the ground and other analysts of the city’s response to the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old man. Elsewhere in the city, Al Jazeera asserts that Ferguson police officers fired rubber bullets at their crew, while harassing and threatening them with physical violence. Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker reflected on the evening that his team was harassed, writing, “When we arrived in town, the protest we found that Wednesday afternoon was pretty calm. So it was a very surprising set of decisions on the part of the police that led to a militarized response, complete with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets.”

Despite being clearly labeled as press, and shouting to officers that they were journalists, the Al Jazeera staffers were given none of the special privileges usually afforded to news outlets in similar circumstances.

Walker writes:

It was extremely scary to be in the middle of it. As a journalist, you like to think that you’re not part of the intended target. But journalists that evening were arrested and shot at and gassed, and we were no different. We got a throat full of tear gas, and it was excruciatingly painful. [..] It was one of the most intense, militarized police responses that I’ve seen—and I’ve covered protests like this across the United States and internationally. It felt, and looked, like a war zone.

The past two weeks have set a frightening precedent for journalists in areas of conflict, highlighting the perils of covering the nation’s two most engrossing foreign and domestic issues. Although the U.S. fights against a formidable, growing threat throughout a politically destabilized Syria (and a politically non-viable Iraq), the journalists responsible for casting light on ISIS’s budding trans-boundary caliphate are being detained and killed for the sake of media attention itself. In a statement released Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Deputy Director, Robert Mahoney, said, “Local and foreign journalists already knew that Syria was the world’s most dangerous place to be a reporter before the beheading of James Foley brought that knowledge to the general public. The members of the Islamic State who murdered [Foley] use violence and intimidation to silence all independent reporting in the areas they control.” In a different statement, the CPJ also condemned Ferguson’s police for their attacks on journalists, with Mahoney stating that “Ferguson is an international story and journalists are going to cover it. They have a right to do so without fearing for their safety or liberty.”

The threats faced by journalists covering domestic and foreign unrest has hit a remarkable level of intensity. The job of a reporter, photojournalist, or writer embedded in areas of conflict has always come with its hazards, but recent developments in Syria, Iraq, and the United States have shown that self-proclaimed havens for press freedom have taken on newfound repressive tactics when responses to protest are militarized — and in foreign cases, that journalists are given no quarter as independent observers in which asymmetrical warfare is de rigeur.

Americans are used to seeing militarized crackdowns on journalists abroad, and unfettered coverage of protests at home. And yet, the stakes have risen: police have silenced domestic journalists, while foreign correspondents are killed to send messages to the public at-large, marking a new era where no journalist is afforded protection from harm.


brianBrian O’Connor is a Blog Editor for The Brooklyn Quarterly as well as a freelance writer and editor. By day, he is a book editor focusing on politics and current affairs.

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