NPC Press Freedom year in review, 2015
December 7, 2015 | By John M. Donnelly | JDonnelly@cq.com
The National Press Club has never been more outspoken in defending journalists under fire and pushing for greater transparency—both in the United States and globally.
Jason Rezaian has been a focus of our work since his arrest more than 500 days ago. We have issued numerous statements to protest his continued detention; his mistreatment and isolation during captivity; the secrecy surrounding all his judicial proceedings; and his unfair trial, conviction and sentencing.
Our many activities in support of Rezaian in 2015 included: putting in the Club’s lobby in February a petition urging Jason’s release; securing a statement in March from former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali about Rezaian’s plight; and hosting a press conference in July to announce the Washington Post’s formal protest of Rezaian’s case to a U.N. human rights body.
The club honored Rezaian’s courage and highlighted the injustice of his case by honoring him with a John Aubuchon Press Freedom award at a gala dinner in July at which Jason’s brother, Ali, accepted the award on his sibling’s behalf.
Video reel of some of the club's efforts to free Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in 2015.
Standing up for Jason Rezaian was only one of the many ways the club defended press freedom in 2015.
At the same dinner in July, we honored two other reporters who are still in captivity with our Aubuchon award.
One was Austin Tice, a freelancer for the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and others who has been held by unknown captors in Syria since 2012. He is believed to be alive and ISIS is not believed to be holding him. The Club participated in a #FreeAustinTice campaign this year, an effort to bring attention to his situation.
The other award winner was Khadija Ismayilova, an Azeri reporter who has worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She was recently sentenced to more than seven years in prison in spurious charges and has already spent a year behind bars. Club leaders spoke about Khadija’s case this year with Azeri diplomats, State Department officials and representatives of two corporate sponsors of the Baku games, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. And we continue to press the case.
Overseas and at Home
Iran, Azerbaijan and Syria are just three of the countries the NPC has focused on. In 2015, we spoke out about abuses committed by ISIS and by Cuba, Turkey, Egypt, Ecuador and others.
We don’t just look overseas. This year alone, we have criticized an Indiana court subpoena of a reporter’s notes; mistreatment of journalists during unrest in Ferguson, Mo; and intimidation of photographers during a #BlackLives Matter protests at the University of Missouri. We criticized the Republican Party for proposing to charge reporters to attend its annual convention in 2016. And we decried the killing of two TV reporters in Virginia this past summer.
In the United States, the risks to reporters are not as great as they are overseas. But government and private-sector surveillance, public antipathy to the press and government attempts to cut off reporters from confidential sources continue to pose threats. In addition, a growing army of communications professionals in government agencies and corporations—people who often help reporters get the story—in too many instances erect obstacles between journalists and the truth.
Events, Court Briefs, Commemorations
The NPC held a number of groundbreaking press-freedom events this year.
One evening last June, we brought together for the first time in one place virtually all the U.S. reporters who have done jail time for refusing to disclose the identity of confidential sources or their notes or recordings. The reporters shared their insights that night on the pressures U.S. reporters face as they try to protect their sources.
We also held an event on the risks to freelancers overseas and another on Americans’ right to photograph in public places. We conducted hands on training on using the Freedom of Information Act and on cybersecurity for journalists. We’ve done press freedom podcasts and film screenings, such as one this fall about the challenges of Afghan photojournalists.
What’s more, just about every month the Club joins with other news organizations in signing friend of the court briefs in cases where press freedom issues are being adjudicated.
Several of the events listed above were held to commemorate Sunshine Week in mid March and World Press Freedom Day in early May—two happenings the club is always involved with.
Win or Lose, Tireless
Unfortunately, in many instances, such as the cases of Rezaian, Tice and Ismayilova, success has not come—not yet anyway.
But there have been a number of notable victories. Take the cases of James Risen and Joseph Hosey, two reporters the Club honored in the past with Aubuchon awards. Both men faced jail time for refusing to identify confidential sources in court but were ultimately spared prison time without having to divulge their sources as pressure mounted in 2014 on prosecutors and judges over heavy handed judicial tactics.
In Egypt, too, we saw success when that country freed jailed al Jazeera reporters after long periods of detention, after the club and others helped keep a light shined on their plight.
One of those reporters, Abdullah Elshamy of Al Jazeera Arabic, came to the club last September and thanked us, saying our efforts kept hope alive for him as he lost nearly one third of his body weight during nearly a year in a Cairo prison cell.
"Statements by the National Press Club and other news outlets here in the United States and across the globe really helped in my release," Elshamy said.
Unfortunately, more always needs to be done. In 2014, 103 journalism professionals and citizen journalists were killed around the world just for doing their jobs, according to Reporters Without Borders.
With nearly a month left in 2015, this year’s number is at 87, still an unacceptable tally.