On April 5, pro-Gaddafi forces abducted three journalists and a photographer. One of those journalists was Clare M. Gillis, a former Teaching Fellow at the College and an investigative reporter for The Atlantic.
As of last night, reports continue to circulate that Gillis, captured near the hotly contested town of Brega, may now be in Tripoli and may soon be released. For the sake of her safety and those others arrested with her, we can only hope that she and her companions are released as soon as possible and that they are spared the same harsh treatment as other prisoners of the Gaddafi regime.
Over the last two months, the Gaddafi regime has similarly arrested a number of journalists from such media outlets such as the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and Agence France-Presse (all of whom were unlawfully detained before being subsequently released). Two BBC journalists have even alleged that they were tortured and subjected to a mock execution by Gaddafi’s soldiers. In short, the inability of Gaddafi’s forces to respect the human rights of the international press corps is as repulsive as it is an indication that his regime has lost any credibility whatsoever. After all, journalists have a duty to chronicle events with impartiality and honor to inform and educate the public, and regimes that inhibit this duty are already corrupt beyond salvation.
Aside from her duty as a journalist, however, we should also take stock of the particularly valuable type of work Gillis was doing before her capture. Over the past five years, the field of journalism has been altered significantly with the rise of remote blogging, in which a writer need not actually be present to report. In fact, it is striking how much media information on the Middle East’s revolutions emerges from field work from contributors armed only with a fast wireless connection. In that sense, at a time when it is all too easy to encounter so much suspect information and ill-informed opinion on the Internet, the importance of journalists like Gillis undertaking serious investigative projects cannot be stressed enough. As a true investigative reporter, nominally freelance but reporting in this case for The Atlantic, Gillis sought to uncover some of the facts behind an opaque and complicated world crisis. And without the work of people like her, we would know even less than we do already do about what is really happening in places like Libya. In other words, reporters like Clare Gillis are the reason our society can still actively learn about itself and the larger context in which it exists.
To that end—and in light of Gillis’s recent arrest—Harvard would do well to emphasize the role of journalism as a mode of public service. The University’s various organizations and schools—from the undergraduate International Relations’ Council to the John F. Kennedy School of Government—play an important role as advocates for the merits of public service. Harvard is also a major originator of public service undertaken by qualified and ambitious young people. Yet where in this environment is journalism recognized as a similarly valuable means of social contribution? To be sure, Gillis’s career choice seems unusual for Harvard’s graduate body, and, consequently, the inherent public service of journalism, and especially conflict journalism, should feature much more prominently in campus discourse.
At this point in the Libyan conflict, of course, Harvard University would only be able to play a minimal role in securing Gillis’s release. However, when and if Gaddafi’s forces do release Gillis, Harvard would do well to invite her back to Cambridge to speak and to share her experiences with the entire community. Gillis stands to educate others about an unusual set of first-hand experiences, and we should recognize her intrepid professional work and her unjust treatment.
As mentioned already, Gillis’s case is far from isolated in Libya. The illegal detainment and reports of violence against international reporters exist as one of many atrocities perpetrated by Gaddafi’s forces. As though the international community needed further evidence of the embattled regime’s moral standing—after the now routine and indiscriminate attacks on Libyan civilians—the suppression of independent media only helps to invalidate the authority of the government. Gaddafi should order an immediate halt to any effort to stifle journalists but, moreover, must also cease all illegal activities directed against his own civilians. To those who doubt whether international observers should take a stand in what has become a civil war in Libya, it says something powerful about the two opposing sides that one has basically respected the rights of the media while the other has repeatedly violated them. While we should hope for the immediate release of Clare Gillis, an individual whose plight resonates on this campus and with this country, we should not forget that such distressing events will continue to happen as Muammar Gaddafi remains in place to direct them. For the sake of the journalists and the civilians, it is high time for justice finally to be served.