Freeing the Foreign Press

Recent attacks on Russian and Mexican journalists warrant an American response

Russian journalist Oleg Kashin recently gave an interview on Russian radio, positing that his November assault was spurred by his coverage of a contentious highway project near Moscow. After his attack, Kashin lay in a drug-induced coma for days, his jaw broken and his legs and skull fractured. His attackers on the streets of Moscow made sure to mangle his hands, and one of his fingers was lost. His editor at the prominent Russian newspaper, Kommersant, also attributes the savage beating to Kashin’s work covering politics and protests in the city. Russia has a lax stance when it comes to the freedom of the press, and it’s not alone. Although they may seem far away, these places most need their stories told to the world. When voices are silenced, atrocities go unchecked, and so the U.S. government and American public must be more vocal about the injustices faced by foreign reporters in their line of work.

Kashin is merely the latest victim in a string of unsolved crimes against journalists in Russia. In November 2008, after Mikhail Beketov, the editor of the independent newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda, called for the resignation of the corrupt city leadership in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, his car was blown up. Then thugs beat him within inches of his life, and his injuries necessitated the amputation of a leg and three of his fingers. He is now wheelchair-bound and has so much brain damage that he can’t complete sentences.

Natalia Estemirova was found dead on the side of a highway after being abducted from her home in Chechnya in July 2009. Before her slaying, Estemirova had been investigating kidnappings and other crimes in which she suspected the Chechen government and its Kremlin supporters played a role.  No arrests have been made in her case, and the police appear to be merely paying lip service to the investigation.

After the second vicious murder of a reporter in less than two years, in September, El Diario—the largest newspaper in border town and Mexican drug violence epicenter Ciudad Juarez—ran a front-page editorial begging for mercy from the cartels. The editors volunteered, in a complete surrender to the gangs, to stop reporting on the drug wars.

America prizes its free press, no matter how exasperating some aspects of cable television can be sometimes. That’s why it should be so alarming to hear of a complete capitulation of a major newspaper just south of our border. This is a problem beyond the abstract theory of personal liberty, though. It is also transcends the martyrdom of the slain reporters. Rather, the drug cartels have essentially commanded carte blanche to commit any sin, without the possibility of the truth escaping to the outside world.

We live in a time where kidnapping and even executing journalists is an easy way for fringe extremist groups to get attention. The tragedy of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and ultimately beheaded, is the most infamous of these stories, but journalists are captured and held hostage all too often.

So far, in 2010 alone, 39 journalists have been killed around the world as a direct result of their work. Since 1992, 840 had perished. From the drug wars in Mexico to the rule of law’s disintegration in Somalia, reporters are being threatened and murdered around the world. Often, governments are unwilling or unable to protect reporters or even conduct a thorough investigation in the event of violence. If this trend continues, local news sources will shy away from telling provocative stories and foreign news companies will be too afraid to send employees into dangerous places.

When reporters become political pawns and sacrifices, rather than unbiased storytellers, we all lose. When journalists must choose between telling the truth and saving their lives, stories are distorted or left untold. Corruption and crime can flourish, and the global public is kept in the dark about these atrocities, and they are not addressed.

We need to put a priority on the protection of reporters. The U.S. must let Russia and governments around the world know that it is not acceptable for them to intimidate or assassinate reporters, even if they are looking into dark corners that some would rather remain un-illuminated. Becoming a journalist in a dangerous area is a choice that is made knowing the risks, but it is in the general interest to keep the people who perform this duty safe. Americans have protected the rights of the press at home throughout our history, now it is time to stand up for the freedom of members of the press abroad.

Samuel N. Adams ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.

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