What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

42 Murdered journalists so far in 2014; Joel Simon tells the backstory in "The New Censorship"

Burma is a democracy nowadays, isn't it? The military junta has given way to an elected parliament, one of which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- under house arrest until only four years ago -- is a member. Well, kinda sorta maybe. The fact is that Suu Kyi is now part of the establishment, and she's starting to draw criticism from some quarters for not speaking out as forcefully as she did when she was completely out of power, on issues that might provoke the military (who still hold about 25% of the seats in the legislature) and that divide society (such as the abuse of Muslim minorities).

Which leaves journalists to step into the breach. Journalists like Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance reporter killed while in the custody of the Burmese military, who claimed he was working for a Karen rebel army, and was trying to escape custody. Some of the initial observations following his body's exhumation suggest that his injuries can't be fully explained by having been shot while trying to escape.

Burma isn't a particularly dangerous place for journalists, as these things are measured by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization of which Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship, is the executive director. Only four journalists have lost their lives as a result of being targeted for doing their job: Aung Kyaw Naing just happens to be the latest of these, and the latest to lose his life of the 42 journalists killed "in the line of duty" so far this year. Some of their names are very well known to anyone who has followed the news: they include Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, brutally murdered by terrorists in Syria, with videos of their beheadings being posted online for the world to see. Some won't be known to many of you, like Rubylita Garcia of the Philippines, a newspaper reporter and radio personality, attacked by gunmen in her own home after exposing local corruption. Garcia, who was the same age that I am, died in hospital hours later.

The Philippines has been a difficult place to be a journalist, as Simon points out in this compelling book that goes well beyond what we think off when we contemplate the hazards of journalism -- war reporting, for instance -- to look at the day-to-day realities of combatting corruption in countries like the Philippines or confronting sophisticated autocrats like Turkey's Erdogan. A total of 77 journalists have lost their lives in the Philippines, but that includes the mass assassination of 32 reporters in the single deadliest attack on a group of media professionals on record, as they followed a political candidate on his way to file his candidacy papers.

This is a timely and thoughtful analysis of all the reasons we may be getting too little news about issues of importance -- and the reasons why it isn't even the countries like China (with its "Great Firewall") and Iran that we need to worry about most (or at least, not foremost), but the ones that we don't worry about, because we assume that reporters now are free to move around and report, because, after all, aren't the democracies? Not really, says Simon, suggesting that the phrase "democratator" is more appropriate for leaders who equate press criticism with a national security challenge. And repression doesn't have to reach murder to silence journalists and stifle freedom of speech.

All that a repressive or tyrannical regime -- or anyone else -- has to do to censor is to manipulate the impression the public has of a journalist who seeks to portray the powerful in an unflattering light. Turkey's President Erdogan sees Western journalists and those who don't toe his party's as line as waging "psychological warfare" against the country. If they aren't shunned by their employers and their friends, they are imprisoned. It isn't necessary to murder them.

Then there's terrorism. Foley and Sotloff are among its most recent victims; one of the first deliberately targeted (as opposed to its accidental victims) was my friend and former colleague, Danny Pearl,  kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. I first "met" Danny when he and I negotiated the terms of the Toronto/Atlanta Wall Street Journal bureau World Series bet in 1992: Danny threw himself into it, heart and soul, to the point where, after the folks in Atlanta accidentally flew the Canadian flag upside down, Danny figured out how to program the Wall Street Journal's dot matrix printers to print out an illustration of an upside-down maple leaf flag -- and set it to every bureau in the Dow Jones empire. We later bonded over music, with Danny bombarding me with recommendations for this composer or that performer.

But, as Simon so clearly explains, now that terrorists have direct access to the Internet, they don't need reporters as intermediaries. Instead, they can use the reporters' deaths as weapons. As of the time he wrote this, some 30 journalists covering Syria and areas where ISIS/IS/IL/whatever is active have simply vanished without a trace. Evaporated. Add that to the ranks of the 70 who we know are dead -- the vast majority of them local reporters, whose deaths will never make the headlines. And think about what that means for what we learn about the world we live in.

We are "deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality." And the Internet, far from helping, may actually be making this worse, having changed the economics of the media world, making it costly to sustain overseas bureaus and more convenient to rely on local journalists as news gatherers -- the same people who are most vulnerable to pressure. In Mexico, Simon notes, one newspaper published an open letter to drug traffickers that essentially amounted to "just tell us what to print".

People fuss a lot about questions of media ownership, but this book makes it very, very clear that the problem is a far broader one. You don't need to own a paper to dictate what it says, as long as you can employ one of the means of the "new censorship". If you are remotely interested in the caliber of news you get; if you've ever found yourself saying, "but why are we seeing all the coverage of THIS, and nothing of THAT", or griping about something in the media coverage of the world beyond the borders of, say, North America and Western Europe, you might want to pick this up and read it.

A few nights before Thanksgiving, the CPJ will hold its annual gala dinner in New York, honoring a handful of individuals from around the world. I've been lucky enough to attend this on a couple of occasions, and inevitably, it's one of the most inspiring evenings imaginable -- and the most daunting, because listening to the obstacles that honorees confront daily makes every detail of my life sound like a first world problem. A computer that crashes on deadline, nasty comments on a story or even a single, solitary e-mail death threat from someone I know very well doesn't mean what they say? Piffle. And you met the most interesting people. One year, my neighbor was Elizabeth Neuffer, author of the fabulous The Key to My Neighbor's House. It was about to come out, and we talked all evening about her reporting into the attempt to bring justice to those who had survived civil wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Buy it -- really, it's that good. Two problems: the author won't get the royalties and she won't be writing about the aftermath of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because she herself died in Iraq in 2003. It was an accident, not murder -- but still, another death in the pursuit of news. And now the latest recipient of a fellowship set up in her honor is chronicling the persecution and deaths of journalists in Honduras...

Read Joel Simon's book. The writing is straightforward and analytical; it's relatively short and to the point (in contrast to this long and rambling post...) The questions it raises are anything but simple, but the least we can do is insist on staying informed about the issues.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for a review. My opinion is my own, however!

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