National Press Club

Club event spotlights dangerous assignments

November 17, 2011 | By John M. Donnelly | JDonnelly@cq.com

Washington Post writer and editor Richard Leiby (third from left) discusses the dangers faced by journalists covering conflicts in Pakistan and Mexico at a National Press Club Freedom of the Press event on Nov. 17. Malcolm Beith (first from left) and Patrick Ventrell (second from left) also participated. The event was moderated by Club President and panel moderator Mark Hamrick (standing).

Washington Post writer and editor Richard Leiby (third from left) discusses the dangers faced by journalists covering conflicts in Pakistan and Mexico at a National Press Club Freedom of the Press event on Nov. 17. Malcolm Beith (first from left) and Patrick Ventrell (second from left) also participated. The event was moderated by Club President and panel moderator Mark Hamrick (standing).

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Among the many perilous countries where journalists work, Mexico and Pakistan stand out as particularly daunting, a panel of experts said Thursday at the National Press Club.

Although different in many ways, the two countries both struggle to assert the rule of law and to foster democracy, including a free press. But in both countries, progress toward those ends has been fitful at best, as reporters have been intimidated, injured and killed in great numbers, two journalists and a State Department representative said a "The Danger of Knowing," a forum co-sponsored by the Club's Press Freedom Committee, Reporters Without Borders and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

The native journalists in both places suffer more than visiting reporters from other nations, the panelists said.

In Pakistan, 48 reporters have been killed since 2000 and nine in the last year, according to Reporters Without Borders’ Washington director, Clothilde Le Coz, an NPC member who helped organize the event.

The panelists were Malcolm Beith, author of The Last Narco, a book on the drug war in Mexico, Richard Leiby, incoming chief of The Washington Post’s Pakistan bureau; and Patrick Ventrell, acting director of the press office at Foggy Bottom. NPC President Mark Hamrick moderated the event.

Leiby said he has been told it is not safe for reporters to travel in certain parts of Pakistan because of the threat from militants. As a result, he said, The Washington Post gets a lot of its information from Pakistani stringers. Sometimes, he said, Pakistani journalists pass along stories they will not publish in their own papers for fear of reprisal by authorities.

While western reporters in Pakistan have more to fear from militants than from the country’s government, for Pakistan reporters it is the opposite, Leiby said. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which has been implicated in the killing of journalists, is of particular concern, he said.

“The real ‘danger of knowing’ rests in these native journalists, who are risking their lives every day,” Leiby said.

In Mexico, meanwhile, at least 80 reporters have been killed since 2000, including several recent beheadings for which the Zetas drug cartel took responsibility, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The threat to reporters in Mexico comes mainly from the drug cartels trying to deter investigation into their trade, Beith said. And in that country, like Pakistan, native journalists have it tougher than visitors.

In Ciudad Juarez, especially, Beith said, “There are too many journalists being chased out of town, if not killed.”

As horrible and indefensible as the killings are, Beith called them an indication of a society struggling to tell the truth about itself and push back against its dark elements. “It’s a sign that the democracy is trying to work,” he said.

The State Department’s Ventrell said U.S. diplomats frequently raise press freedom issues with their counterparts in countries where reporters face threats. Despite the treacherous conditions in places like Mexico and Pakistan, he stressed the important role reporters must play around the world.

“We vitally need Americans to continue to go overseas, to continue to pursue the hard stories, to continue to report,” he said.

Since 1992, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 625 cases of journalists murdered for their work. Of those, 90 percent are unsolved.

On Nov. 23, press freedom organizations around the world commemorate International Day to End Impunity, to call attention to unsolved murders of journalists worldwide. Visit http://daytoendimpunity.org/ to learn more about what you can do to help.