Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
Freedom of the press has traditionally been limited when matters of national security were at stake, such as during a war. The worldwide and ongoing nature of the war on terrorism has resulted in a permanent state of affairs that is unique and poses distinct threats to freedom of the press.
Military Secrecy and Freedom of the Press
The war on terrorism has made intelligence about terrorists and strategies for combating them secret information. Among the issues that arise is how reporters can report what the government is doing without running afoul the protection of information kept secret for the protection of the public.
During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the military responded to an increasingly hostile press by severely restricting them. Reporters could only visit units with permission and as part of press pools. There were limits on what they could report, such as not giving away the location of units or taking pictures of top secret military equipment. Those who violated military security guidelines would be immediately expelled from the combat zone. Similar rules remain in effect when a reporter is covering Special Forces or drone strikes against Islamic terrorists today.
The Literal Threat to Journalists
In 2015, Islamic militant groups like Al Qaeda killed at least 28 journalists in eight different countries. This is a large portion of the 72 journalists killed in 2015. Of the 48 journalists killed in 2016, most were killed by Muslim terrorists or simply killed in the aftermath. Murders were down but “combat deaths” were up, fourteen dying in Syria alone in 2016. The danger of dying in the middle of a war has always existed, like the death of Michael Kelly in Iraq in 2003.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or OSCE issued guidelines in 2016 that said that participating states should ensure the safety and freedom of journalists when reporting on terrorism. It advocated against media blackouts of terrorist activities and in favor of letting journalists protect sources even if affiliated with terrorist groups and setting a high bar for intelligence agencies being able to access the journalists’ material.
Anti-Terrorism Laws and Journalists
Governments around the world periodically use terrorism related charges to jail journalists. Egypt and Turkey are the worst offenders of this. The gray area comes in when the journalists are working for news outlets affiliated with Muslim fundamentalist groups. For example, six Egyptian journalists working for media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were jailed for life while five reporting for pro-Kurdish groups were imprisoned in Turkey. In these cases, they report on issues going on in the area with a bias in favor of their employers.
The line between propaganda and independent reporting gets blurred, and even someone reporting on destroyed infrastructure or human interest stories becomes a target under anti-terrorism laws as a result. In other cases, the reporter chooses to go to the other side, like Hassan Hanafi. He was a journalist in Somalia who joined Al-Shabaab and used media connections to spy for the terrorist group; Hanafi was executed by the Somali government in 2016.
The use of anti-terrorism laws to go after journalists isn’t limited to the Middle East. A journalist reporting on activities of Maoist rebels in India was charged with terrorism in India in 2015.
Self-Censorship Interfering with Reporting
Fear of Islamic terrorism leads to self-censorship by newspapers, with many papers refusing to print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in stories about the murder of the cartoonists being a notable example. This is separate from state mandates like the European Council telling the British press in October 2016 not to report when terrorists are Muslim. Unwillingness to show the cartoons at Pamela Gellar’s “Everyone Draw Mohammed” contest in support of freedom of speech is another; the Muslim terrorists that attacked the Garland, Texas event were covered by the press but the issue was typically described as the fault of Gellar for provoking it.
European news sources refusing to cover the New Year’s Eve 2015 mass sexual assaults by Muslim migrants across Europe for fear of running afoul “hate speech” rules is another. In one case, the 19 year old daughter of an EU official by an Afghan refugee wasn’t covered by German press because they didn’t want to make Muslim migrants look bad. Their excuse was that it was too regional a story, when the reality was that they didn’t want to get in trouble with the state by making Merkel’s open borders policy look bad.
While laws restricting the activities of journalists in military events have strong and longstanding precedents, the broad laws against terrorism can impede freedom of the press and are often used to protect the state’s interests. The literal threat to journalists by Muslim terrorists results in self-censorship that is detrimental to the public and prevents the whole story from getting out. This is separate but as equally bad as state mandates that seek to protect the reputation of various political parties by limiting reporting of critical information about terrorists.
Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 19, 2017:
Dennis L. Page Freedom of speech is the foundation of freedom because you cannot oppose tyranny or even have freedom of belief if you cannot speak to those around you.
Dennis L. Page from New York/Pennsylvania border on February 07, 2017:
Thank you for writing this piece. We need a free press in order for us to know the whole story. The majority in journalism are honorable and above board. Yes, like any profession there are slackers and those who don't follow the rules, but by and large, they are in the minority. When politicians try to limit the press there are usually unsavory reasons behind their motivation to do so.