After hearing about the beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS yesterday, I knew I had to speak up. Foley is one of thirty journalists to go missing in Syria over the past three years, making the Syrian civil war the most dangerous conflict for journalists in last thirty years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 66 journalists have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war. These brave journalists put themselves in harm’s way in order to expose the truth. As Foley’s mother said in a statement Tuesday night, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
So let’s take a look at that suffering: 160,000 dead, 6.5 million uprooted from their homes, and 2.7 million forced to flee, according to the Huffington Post. In 2012, it was the deadliest internal conflict on the planet.
So, it seems that the most dangerous places for civilians are also the most dangerous places for journalists, which simply makes the work reporters do all the more important. In 2013 alone, 71 journalists were killed, 826 were arrested, and 2160 were threatened or physically attacked, up by 9% from the year before, according to Reporters Without Borders. Governments and terrorist groups around the world have been using conflict as an excuse to target and brutalize journalists — it’s been happening in Gaza, Syria, Egypt, Russia, Iran, and even the US.
Which takes me to Ferguson, MO, where 14 journalists have been arrested trying to cover the protests and police brutality after the murder of Michael Brown (a detailed account of the police officer’s account vs. eyewitnesses can be read here). Police officers are specifically targeting journalists and members of the media with tear gas and arresting them without lawful cause. Though the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Ferguson for barring journalists from reporting (and won), arrests are still happening. And so Ferguson begs the same question as Syria: if this is how militants are treating journalists, how must they be treating civilians?
As Max Fisher said at Vox, “Journalists can at times be the canary in the coal mine for situations when basic order and public safety have broken down.” By targeting journalists, the police and government of Missouri are sending a message: “We control the streets. We control the citizens. We will threaten you with death whether the cameras are rolling or not.”
And this is the message journalists expect to hear abroad, when dealing with terrorist organizations, brutal governments, and war. It is startling to see the fear and intimidation tactics used by law enforcers, who are meant to protect citizens, against a non-militarized group of protesters.
Many people have already made the connection between foreign atrocities and what is happening in Ferguson; Palestinians are tweeting tear gas advice at Ferguson protesters, and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein (who was arrested during a protest outside of Governor Nixon’s office) has said, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.”
Epstein went on to say, “Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted.” Epstein is talking about a narrative that all black Americans know well: black bodies don’t matter. Brown’s shooting and Ferguson’s protests exposed the racial profiling and systematic police brutality of blacks that hasn’t been as widely publicized since the ’92 L.A. riots (see a detailed timeline of significant events in American civil rights here).
With the constraining and barring of journalists in Ferguson, law enforcement is attempting to maintain that narrative. If American journalists like James Foley have the bravery to go abroad to document violent conflict enacted by governments on civilians — Foley even went back after being held captive in Libya for six weeks in 2012 — they can certainly continue to document them here so that people understand not just the violence happening in Ferguson, but the implications of that violence for all Americans.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. ~ Martin Niemöller
Image credits to Lucas Jackson, Reuters and Charlie Riedel, AP Photo