Courtney Radsch: Journalist & Free Press Advocate

The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. They defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. Every year, hundreds of journalists are attacked, imprisoned or killed. For more than 30 years, CPJ has been there to defend them and fight for press freedom. Daniel Grinberg, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Media at Risk, spoke with Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s Advocacy Director, to discuss the organization and its mission.

What aspects of risk does CPJ address in regard to journalists and to media practitioners?

CPJ focuses on addressing issues of risk related to physical and digital security, psychosocial trauma, policies related to press freedoms such as online censorship and legislation and regulation, and anything that impacts the media ecosystem in which journalists need to do their work safely and securely.

What are some of the strategies and initiatives you are employing to mitigate those kinds of risks?

CPJ takes a three-pronged approach to our work. The first is reporting, which forms the basis for all of our work. Part of this is making sure that attacks on journalists, including killings, imprisonment, physical threats and press freedom violations, don’t go unnoticed and unreported. In one sense, we are a news service reporting on attacks on the press on a daily basis.

The second prong is our assistance work. We have an emergency response team that mobilizes to respond to journalists in distress and we coordinate the Journalists in Distress network of NGOs that provide assistance to journalists. This can mean that we provide direct assistance to journalists under threat or who need to go into exile, as well as proactively mobilizing safety and security resources and trying to get out ahead of potentially threatening environments.

The third prong is advocacy. Our advocacy is based on our reporting, and it is aimed at both private and public actors. That includes governments and multilateral organizations, but also coalitions like international sporting bodies such as the international Olympic Committee or technology platforms such as Facebook or Google. It also includes reaching out to news organizations to advocate for a stronger culture of safety. Throughout all of our work, we work closely with partner organizations.

What are some of the continually high-risk environments for practitioners?

Syria has been a country where journalists have been at risk as long as we have been reporting on it. We have seen it most acutely since the outbreak of hostility there in 2011 around the Arab uprisings. It had already been an ongoing crisis situation because of the already censorial and extremely restrictive environment in which local journalists worked. You then had international journalists traveling there and a lot of journalists who were killed and murdered on the frontlines. You also had restrictions on foreign journalists going there and an increased reliance on local journalists and activists who were having to fill in and play that journalistic role in this void. ISIS also poses major risks, with what they did to Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff and by putting hundreds of other journalists under threat there. Syria is certainly one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.

Iraq is another one of the deadliest countries for journalists and it has a 100% impunity rate. In both Iraq and Syria, those who murder journalists are never held accountable. Mexico is another country that has been a concern for a long time. It is extremely deadly for journalists, especially those reporting on corruption or anything related to drug cartels and organized crime. Ethiopia used to be a country of concern. It was one of Africa’s leading jailers of journalists and an incredibly repressive country. They would even frequently try to threaten journalists beyond their borders. That has changed in recent months with the shift in the administration there.

What areas have become riskier for journalists more recently?

Since 2011 and the political transition there, Egypt has become an increasingly problematic and challenging environment for journalists. We have seen it go from not even being on the list of countries that jails journalists to being among the top three for the past several years running. It is an increasingly repressive and restrictive environment that has tried to prevent reporting on non-official terrorism statistics and criminalized the publication of fake news. It was one of the first countries, along with Ethiopia, to do that. Another country that I would newly point to is Nicaragua. We saw a real deterioration over these last few months when we were on the ground with a safety advisor sent by our emergency response team. We saw the potential for the deterioration there to lead to real challenges for journalists early on and we have seen that increased threat environment play out.

Similarly with Venezuela, our emergency response team wanted early last year to have a security specialist on the ground. We wanted to make sure we were providing safety guidance and information for journalists both in the country and traveling there. That response has continued since then, especially given the latest crisis over the political leadership there. Our emergencies director traveled to the border with Colombia in early March because of the rising threats journalists are facing there.

What are some of the current cultural and political developments that you see most affecting your work and impacting the conditions of risk?

The rise in the use of the term “fake news” to undermine legitimate journalism and to attack and pillory individual journalists and media outlets has had a serious impact on the media environment around the world. Linked to that is the abdication of the leadership role of the United States on press freedom and the protection of journalists.

We have seen the effects of the attacks by President Donald Trump on individual journalists, his restrictions on White House access and his use of Twitter to target individual journalists and media outlets. He has attacked the very idea of independent facts and this has had broad resonance around the world. That includes countries that need little excuse to intervene, because they are already clamping down on the media and leveraging that rhetoric to justify their own repression. We saw that in China, welcoming the term “fake news” by the president, and Cambodia using to justify kicking out Radio Free Asia, and in Egypt to justify greater restrictions on the press.

We’ve seen it around the world in repressive countries. Bashar al-Assad using the term “fake news” to delegitimize reports about torture in prison and Burmese authorities using it to dismiss what the UN has called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. It’s happening in quasi-democratic or democratic countries like Hungary as well, where Prime Minister Orbán has used that term to justify his consolidation of control over the media. In Poland, we have also seen the government there use that terminology to justify restrictions, legal restrictions and regulations on the press.

In terms of the impact, we’ve seen it in the numbers. Only nine journalists in two countries were jailed on false news charges before President Trump was in office. Egypt and Ethiopia were the only countries jailing journalists on false news charges. That has increased significantly. It’s up to 27 in at least six countries in our most recent prison census. So we have both quantitatively and qualitatively seen the impacts of the fake news rhetoric. That is coupled with the fact that this development is being led by the President of the United States, which sends a really detrimental signal.

What are some of the successes that CPJ has achieved?

First of all, whenever we claim a success, it’s always because there are many people working on it. We have seen improvements and successes with cases we have worked on, where the journalists have then gotten out of prison. In one case, Jones Abiri in Nigeria, there was a journalist who was missing and it wasn’t clear whether he was alive or not. We found he was being held at detention and helped get him out of prison. There are many cases like that, because we do track the journalists on whom we report and advocate for. Last year, we helped 80 journalists gain early release from prison. We are always very happy when that happens. It’s one of the most amazing feelings when you get to meet those journalists. Helping secure the early release of 80 imprisoned journalists surpassed our record from the previous year when we helped win the freedom of 75 jailed journalists.

There are also broader country situations like Ethiopia, which I mentioned. We have been working there on cases of imprisoned bloggers, but also tracking the sophisticated surveillance apparatus that Ethiopia used to censor and surveil journalists and the repressive policies that were instituted. We have now seen improvement following some concerted advocacy and efforts to engage the new government. They are actually hosting World Press Freedom Day this year, which is amazing.

In Ecuador, for a long time, we were reporting on the very oppressive policies of the prior administration. That includes things like using the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act to crack down on legitimate journalism and censor and remove content online. It was a very repressive country for journalists. We used the political transition there as an opportunity to pressure the new government to make commitments to improving press freedom. When Moreno was elected, they eased the anti-press rhetoric. We did a mission there last March and released a report in July where we documented the changes and made recommendations. We have since seen improvement there. The Special Rapporteurs were invited for an official visit from the OAS of the United Nations. The executive and congressional branches are debating several proposals that look like they are going to be signed into law shortly. This followed our documentation of the threats under Correa’s regime and the opportunity for Moreno.

We have also seen that when journalists are murdered, the killers go free nine out of ten times. But we are committed to fighting for justice and we meet with government officials. Since 2013, we have contributed to securing the convictions in the murders of 38 journalists, including six in 2018.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced as an organization?

One of the challenges is to get people to care about local journalists in a far-flung country. It might not seem apparent why someone on the other side of the world or even on the other side of their country should care about a journalist being attacked, imprisoned, or killed. Storytelling helps remind them that these journalists aren’t just statistics. They are people. They all have names and we have profiles on every journalist who was killed or imprisoned on our census every year, so that they do not go unknown. It’s hard because there are so many journalists killed every year and even more are imprisoned every year. The numbers keep going up. We try to make sure that people understand what the loss of a journalist means, not only to that individual and their family and friends but also to the broader public. What was that journalist reporting on? What has been lost to the world because that person is no longer reporting on corruption or environmental degradation? That’s a challenge.

Another challenge is that the environment in which journalists work is incredibly complex and is becoming more complex. The roles that technology plays in the media ecosystem, the sustainability of media and the press freedom environment are so much more important and central now than a decade ago. One of the big challenges is that it seems like journalists are losing the surveillance arms race. The capacity of governments to leverage technology to censor, surveil, target and attack journalists has really increased in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. That movement demonstrated to governments around the world, authoritarian and democratic alike, the power of these platforms and the fact that it’s risky for them to allow more freedom online. That had been the case in many countries before and often resulted in governments establishing more online restrictions.

Meanwhile, the surveillance capacity of governments continues to increase exponentially. That is first led by the United States and then secondly led by Western companies that are selling advanced surveillance technology to other governments that specifically use it to target journalists. We’ve seen that in Mexico and with Jamal Khashoggi. The attack against Jamal Khashoggi in a foreign consulate was a particularly brazen event. Breaching diplomatic norms, followed by the lack of accountability from the U.S. executive branch and the very public equation in which President Trump essentially said that arms sales and economic interests outweigh the need for justice and accountability, in this case, has sent a very chilling signal around the world. I still don’t know that we’ve seen the full implications of that yet.

What has surprised you most in your work on risk in journalism?

What has surprised me the most is how many journalists are murdered because of what they are reporting. I can’t think of another profession where people are routinely murdered because of their jobs and to prevent them from doing their jobs.

One other thing that is surprising is how little the public thinks about some of this. In the past couple of years, we have seen some more attention being given to the safety of journalists and the importance of press freedom. In part, that is in response to this global populist backlash and the very public attacks on this institution by the president of the United States. An unintended consequence of these attacks is that it has also heightened appreciation for the world of journalism in some cases.

What suggestions would you offer organizations who are working in similar areas as CPJ?

One thing is to always understand that you need to have the consent of the people on whose behalf you are working. It’s really important to involve journalists or their families or their lawyers or their media institutions to make sure that what you think you are doing is in line with what they would want.

Another suggestion is the importance of impeccable and unassailable reporting. Reporting forms the basis of your credibility, so make sure that you get it right even if it doesn’t mean that you’re fastest out of the gate. Being right is critical. The ability to have an impact, especially with governments and with the private sector, depends on your credibility.

How do you deal with the emergent risks and dynamic risks that make it difficult to maintain a consistent response?

You have to have a good team that is resilient and flexible and creative, allowing them to be flexible and adaptive when new challenges emerge. Also, it’s important to understand where you can take the lead, where you can work in partnership and where you could be part of a broader effort in the most strategic way possible.

Daniel Grinberg is the Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Media at Risk at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. In August 2018, he received his PhD from the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Previously, he received a M.A. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a B.A. in English Literature and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. In between, he also taught English at a high school in France and embarked on an ongoing quest to watch every film in the Criterion Collection. Currently, he is at work on his first book, Partial Disclosures: Documentary Media and the Freedom of Information Act, which examines how documentary media and FOIA disclosures mediate public knowledge of covert security and surveillance practices. He has also written on topics such as terror watchlists, predictive security algorithms, and the militainment network of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. His research interests include government media and censorship, war and security media, surveillance, documentary media, media activism, and digital technologies in both U.S. and global contexts. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming “Queer Surveillance” issue of Surveillance & Society and the “Surveillance States” issue of Media Fields Journal; the co-organizer of the University of California Humanities Research Institute “War, Security, and Digital Media” Graduate Working Group; and the co-organizer of the Power Dynamics: 2016 Media and the Environment Conference and Ruins: 2017 Media Fields Conference.

Courtney C. Radsch, PhD, is advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She serves as chief spokesperson on global press freedom issues for the organization and oversees CPJ’s engagement with the United Nations, the Internet Governance Forum, and other multilateral institutions as well as CPJ’s campaigns on behalf of journalists killed and imprisoned for their work. As a veteran journalist, researcher, and free expression advocate, she frequently writes and speaks about the intersection of media, technology, and human rights. Her book Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change was published in 2016. Prior to joining CPJ, Radsch worked for UNESCO, edited the flagship publication “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development,” and managed the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House. She has worked as a journalist in the United States and Middle East with Al-Arabiya, the Daily Star, and The New York Times. Radsch holds a PhD in international relations from American University. She speaks Arabic, French, and Spanish.