Reporting on Human Rights and the Humanity of Journalists

by Andy Carr

In human rights, journalists usually are seen as chroniclers: reporters on the front lines of a conflict zone letting the world know of events as they unfold. As such, they also may serve as agents of human rights, since their reporting provides advocacy groups and committed global human rights leaders with vital information. Tragically, though, journalists often become the targets of human rights abuses unto themselves. Until recently, little attention had been paid systematically to this last point but shifting global events have underscored numerous threats to members of the media. In an era of politicians condemning the media writ large as “enemies of the people,” deteriorating discourse, extreme politicization of what constitutes “news,” and the polarization of both governing elites and societies at large have made the humanity and the human rights roles of journalists both more important and, troublingly, threatened.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi. Source: Creative Commons.

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post contributor and journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after heading into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Shortly thereafter, Turkish officials leaked that Khashoggi had been murdered, with grisly details suggesting he had been cruelly tortured before his killing – a “brutal silencing of a prominent journalist,” and an event which “was met with outrage from journalists” and politicians around the world.

One notable exception to the global outcry, however, was President Donald Trump. While the President’s “business dealings with Saudi Arabia” leave him “personally conflicted,” regardless of his conflicts, Joel Simon flatly stated that the President has utterly “failed to articulate a coherent response” to Khashoggi’s murder whatsoever. The non-response is galling, in particular because of Khashoggi’s identity and profession. As Kyle Pope wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review:

The Khashoggi case has brought Trump unusual global blowback, though, for a distinction that the president plainly does not see. We care about the Khashoggi case, at least in part, because Khashoggi was a journalist.

Yes, his killing was horrific and barbaric and yes, it came at the hands of an American ally, which then lied about it. But the world has also been moved to respond because Khashoggi, as a journalist, represented something bigger than the man himself, something that leaders around the civilized world have come to value. He was a stand-in for a value we wanted to protect.

Pope continues, “We journalists, as individuals, are not special people. We have no unique right to support or sympathy. But the point is that we, collectively, represent something that our society has decided is worthy of protection.” Pope’s point goes directly to a growing subtext in present debates about “fake news” and risks to journalism as a profession, a recognition of its societal importance.

Our society, through the First Amendment to the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”), surely had decided to protect the worthy contributions of journalists from governmental interference – and the individuals themselves. And journalists globally have begun pushing for international collaboration to expand guarantees more widely, such as a proposed UN-promulgated International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists and Other Media Professionals, led by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The IFJ’s proposal responds to the realities of a fraught few years for the profession. In Yemen, some 35 journalists have been killed since the country’s civil war began in 2011, and eight so far this year alone. At least 45 journalists, globally, have lost their lives in the first 10 months of 2018, among whom 27 were confirmed as murdered. To wit, the IFJ’s proposed Convention would include various protections aiming to deter violence, threats, and politically motivated intimidation of journalists, extension of humanitarian law concepts to ensure reporters’ safety in conflict zones, and similar measures.

journalists
Source: Creative Commons.

The humanity of journalists—and their own individual rights—often remain overlooked. While the gruesome murder of the Post’s Khashoggi’s in Istanbul catalyzed global attention, the sentencing of two Reuters reporters to seven years’ hard labor on dubious grounds, following their later-verified reporting on a massacre of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, Myanmar, barely registered. Other recent politically motivated arrests of journalists include Austrian Max Zirgast, arrested by “anti-terror” authorities in Turkey, adding to the “dozens of journalists” earlier arrested following the “failed military coup attempt” against Turkish President Erdogan in 2016. At least eight journalists were arrested in late September in Uganda for covering the return of an opposition leader, MP Robert Kyagulanyi, “the latest incident of Ugandan security personnel assaulting, harassing, or arresting journalists covering political tension” in the country. Four journalists, including the deputy editor-in-chief of Xinjiang Daily, were arrested in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region the same month, accused of “publishing ‘two-faced’ articles,” a “vague term” indicating content “allegedly secretly [opposing Chinese] government practices.” As The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur summarized, Khashoggi’s death was a signal of “a larger pattern of violence inflicted on journalists around the world … Year after year, reporters are detained, abducted, and, with some frequency, killed.” Calamur’s colleague, David Graham, decried the U.S. government’s at-best tepid response as “the end of American lip service to human rights.”

Unfortunately, all the foregoing trends appear present in the United States as well. In July 2018, Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene was “detained for ‘interfering’” with the police in Denver, Colorado, not far from the Colorado State Capitol. In May 2017, Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after the reported “asked the then candidate a question about healthcare.” (Gianforte later pleaded guilty to assault, but nevertheless won his election.) And in late June 2018, the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland—which left five Gazette reporters dead and two others injured—triggered mass responses from law enforcement agencies nationwide “to provide protection at the headquarters of media organizations.” From last week’s high-profile pipe bombs, sent to CNN headquarters along with noted Democratic politicians and backers, to the multimillion-dollar libel verdicts against The Raleigh News & Observer in October 2016, the world’s reporters face risks both legal and lethal.

Each of these cases—and especially the still-unfolding story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder—highlights Kyle Pope’s earlier commentary on the importance of journalists to all societies. But each of these cases, of course, reflects an actual individual – a human being behind a byline or photo credit, with their own individual worth and singular humanity. These two understandings of journalists are not mutually exclusive, but instead are, or should be, mutually reinforcing. And policymakers and political leaders, perhaps following or building upon the IFJ’s proposed framework for a journalists’ human rights convention, must take seriously the risks facing the media at home and abroad.

Many reporters and photographers have lost their lives in crossfire, victims of the very conflicts they gave everything to shed light on. Many more have faced harassment, criminal charges, assault and, again, even death, far from the front lines. Our discourse—not to mention our laws, our policy priorities, and our foreign relations—must recognize and respond to these threats.

Authoritarian regimes have long threatened free media and free expression, as well as those who exercise those vital social functions. Today, however, we must be cognizant in all societies of these threats. Even if these values are enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union—all, in principle, inviolable—they must be vindicated and reaffirmed continuously. Revoking publication or television licenses remain obvious aberrations but preventing the dehumanization of journalists entails the same underlying concerns.

Again, as Kyle Pope eloquently noted, the murder of Khashoggi shocked global consciences because, “as a journalist, [he] represented something bigger than [himself], something that leaders around the civilized world have come to value.” That is, journalism and journalists reflect our commitment to information, to expression, to understanding governments and governance, as well as our commitment to seeing problems in the administration of our societies. The individual journalist, then, must be protected as an individual, endowed with human rights as much as any other. But as the guarantors of knowledge and understanding of human rights beyond themselves, journalists’ safety and capacity to work must be ensured – and we all must act vigorously whenever their safety and capacity are threatened, however overt or furtive the menace may be.

 

Andy Carr is a third-year law student at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, California. Previously, Andy extensively studied and researched in political science, receiving his BA and MA degrees at Christopher Newport University and Pennsylvania State University, respectively, and plans to return to complete his PhD beginning in fall 2019. In addition to human rights, media and journalism, and constitutional law, Andy is most interested in questions of democracy and democratic theory – what makes for a truly democratic society, what risks confront representative governments. In addition to his academic training, Andy has worked for a boutique campaign compliance law firm and two global human rights nonprofit organizations, in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Forgotten Countries and their Real Story: Middle East

The Middle East is a transcontinental region. When people think of the term “Middle East”, a host of thoughts come to mind such as deserts, burkas and Saudi Arabia. However, whether they are accurate is a completely different story. Most countries in the Middle East are often forgotten about, ignored, or misconstrued.

Location

One of the most interesting questions to ask people is: Where is the Middle East located? Most people don’t even know what countries consist of the Middle East. One of the reasons why is, in the United States, geography is a dying subject. In fact, about three-fourths of the eighth graders in the United States test below average in geography. Furthermore, in most schools, geography is not required in middle school or high school. Out of the fifty states, only seventeen actually require geography in middle school and only ten in high school. The Middle East consists of fourteen countries shown in the picture below. What surprised me was how I found numerous websites that differed on what countries they thought were actually in the Middle East.

 

Middle East Map. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Arab vs Muslim

What does it mean to be an Arab? An Arab is defined as someone who identifies as being an Arab and whose native language is Arabic. On the other hand, someone who is Muslim practices the religion of Islam. Being an Arab and being a Muslim are not synonymous. For example, you could be an Arab who is not Muslim or you could be a Muslim but not an Arab. Furthermore, about 60% of people living in the Middle East are considered Arab. There are other ethnicities such as Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Jews.

What most people don’t realize is that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, the second largest religion in the world, and the majority are not in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Also, the majority of Muslims live in Asia. While the majority of the Middle East does practice Islam, there are other religions practiced such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, there are different sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shiite.

Another misconception is that all the countries in the Middle East are considered Arab countries. However, that is not the case. For example, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Arab. This misconception may stem from the fact that much of the Islamic faith is written in Arabic. So regardless of which country you reside in, you would have some knowledge of Arabic.

Diverse Societies

There’s a certain stereotype in regards to the Middle East called orientalism that generalizes the region as deserts with roaming camels with olive-skinned people wearing robes, turbans, and garments that completely cover women from head to toe. The fact of the matter is that the style and environment depends on the area of the Middle East. We must also consider other factors such as education, socioeconomic status, and individual preference.  The veil is looked at as a form of modesty. The concept of modesty is meant to be applied to both genders and not just on women, and how each person interprets its meaning is different. Some countries such as Iran and Yemen do require veiling to go out in public; however, most people who wear a veil add their own twist to it. When considering the environment, the Middle East is geographically diverse. The Middle East seems to be defined by its deserts but there are also mountains ranges and rivers. One section of the world should not be defined as one thing. Many people see the Middle East as a backward “country” when it is, indeed, the contrary. Some of their cities rival those in the United States such as Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Demographic trends show that the Middle East has the “youngest population and it has the second highest urbanization rate in the world”.

Source: Creative Commons

“Disregarding the complexity, diversity, vibrancy, and humanity of people in the region leads to this ‘othering’ of the Middle East that is really damaging.”

One dimensional portrayal of women

A common misconception is that Middle Eastern women are oppressed and denied their basic rights because of their religion. Also, it is assumed, they must cover themselves with a veil because they are weak and passive. However, the concept of the veil actually came from Christian Byzantium, not Islam. Surprisingly, Islam gave women more rights than Western women, until the 19th century. In England, women were considered the property of their husband until 1882. However, Muslim women have always been able to keep their own assets. A more current example is when Muslim women are married they tend to keep their last name, while most Western women do not. Notably, in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, it “states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.” As you can see, Islam is not the determining factor behind women being oppressed. While religion can affect women’s rights, culture is the main factor driving the question of gender roles. As a result, you cannot assume all of the Middle East is the same and deem it as such. Depending on the region, women have different statuses and rights. While it is true that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, that is not true in other Middle Eastern countries. Women do have political and social rights in the Middle East, they just vary depending on the country. In fact, women have served as ministers in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan and as Vice President in Iran. That is not to say that the Middle Eastern women do not have problems, just that it is not as extreme as Western countries seem to think.

The Middle East deserves to be seen as diverse. By discussing location, religion, society, and gender people can gain a more open outlook on the Middle East. It is easy to let fear, ignorance, or the media dictate one’s perception; however, to change the cycle conversations must be created.

 

The CRPD: Path to Inclusion

UN General Assembly. Photo by Aseel Hajazin.

It has been almost been two months since the Institute for Human Rights at UAB has gone to the United Nations and the experience is still so surreal. I have always dreamed about one day working for the United Nations; I just did not realize that the opportunity would come so soon. This was also my first time in New York and actually in a lively city, so I was also really looking forward to that experience. Our team was not only going to the UN for a tour but to work. As a rapporteur, I took notes and summarized the comments made by the participating countries during the general debate and concluding conference.

Even though every delegate of their respective country has meaningful contribution to the conference, the countries that stood out the most to me was my home country of Jordan, and my host country, Saudi Arabia. In the Arab World, persons with disabilities are unfortunately sometimes invisible members of society. The conference changed my perspective on the inclusion of Arab people with disabilities in their home countries. I was fortunate enough to interact with many Arabs with disabilities in the conference and listen to their experiences. The statements that stood out to me expressed feelings of relief due to an acknowledgment by their governments; noting a significant improvement of inclusion of persons with disabilities in society, through the implementation of special programs focusing on the education and recreational needs of people with disabilities that were not present 20 years ago.

When I was 12 years old, I visited a school called The Lady of Peace in Amman, Jordan. This school focuses on providing both the educational, recreational and psychological needs of all people with disabilities. I mentioned this to one of the fellow Jordanians participating in the conference, and she knew exactly which school I was talking about! She updated me on the school and let me know they have become very involved in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities by attending conferences throughout Amman. They are not only focusing their attention on providing these services but also promoting disability rights as human rights. She also highlighted that even though the school is a Christian led organization, both Muslims and Christians respectfully come together to help organize fundraisers to continue help the school keep it functioning. The Lady of Peace continues to have a strong sense of unity and community, even after all of these years.

For me, the most impactful moment of the whole conference were the comments made by the delegate of Iraq. They highlighted how global factors need to begin focusing on people affected by disabilities due to war and violence. The delegate mentioned how before violence and war, many of the refugees were not previously disabled. Global assistance and humanitarian efforts need to focus on helping these people adapt to their new situation by providing both technological and psychological assistance and support. Before the conference, the concept of disability due to violence never crossed my mind, and after the delegates remarks I experienced an “ah-ha” moment. The media, when reporting of refugees, focuses on the health and shelter of refugees but not once have I personally heard the media report on the struggles faced by people with disabilities. Initially, I was disappointed in myself for overlooking this population. I now realize that I need to take advantage of my awareness of the reality of disability and war, advocating for awareness to other members of society.

My favorite moment of the whole conference were the comments made by the delegate of Mexico. She was very vibrant and uplifting and reminded members of the conference that we need to change the way we portray people with disabilities. We as a society discuss disability we need to make it fun, exciting and in her words “sexy.” I enjoyed her remarks because she reminded us that we do not have to remain serious all the time when discussing disabilities, and if we want members of our society to care about disability rights, we need to approach the topic in a more engaging and optimist manner.

Overall, this experience was humbling. Throughout the conference, I felt surrounded by love, acceptance, and people who want to make a genuine change in the world. I learned so many different concepts from how the UN operates to what members of our society can implement regarding policy to influence change and real results. I hope one day to have the opportunity to return to the UN and work for them. Thank you to Dr. Reuter for this opportunity, and thank you to my team for making this trip so memorable. I will never forget this opportunity and will definitely cherish it forever.