Telling truth to tyrants

Freedom to bear witness to revolution, to speak truth to despotic power, always comes at a cost.

In a year hailed in last month’s Columbia Journalism Review as “a grand year for free speech” because of the number of Middle East dictators ousted in the “Arab Spring,” it is worth noting the human price of this still precarious freedom.

For journalists, the casualty toll of the Arab uprisings is all too real — hundreds of reporters, photographers and broadcasters attacked and beaten by authorities or mobs, many seriously injured, some sexually assaulted, others detained simply for doing their jobs.

“Autocratic Arab governments have long controlled news and information with an iron hand,” a CJR report on media and the Arab Spring by Lawrence Pintak says. “Across the Arab world many regimes believe the solution to their problems is to kill the messenger, or at least jail her.”

In past months, the Star assigned some dozen or so journalists to sweep across the Arab world and document this history as it happened. Understanding these risks, we all breathed easier when our reporters and photographers returned safely to the newsroom, in many cases having dodged bullets and faced other serious dangers.

Elsewhere, some journalists never returned home. To date, 16 journalists have been killed covering the Arab awakenings. They paid the ultimate price for freedom of expression. Here are their names:

Bahrain: Zakaria Rashid al-Ashir, Karim Fakhrawi. Egypt: Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud, Wael Mikhael. Libya: Ali Hassan Al Jaber, Mohammed Nabbous, Anton Hammerl, Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros. Tunisia: Lucas Mebrouk Dolega. Yemen: Jamal al-Sharabi, Mohamed Yahia Al-Malayia, Hassan al-Wadhaf, Abdel Majid Al-Samawi, Abdel Hakim Al-Nour, Abd Al-Ghani Al-Bureihi.

Google these names and you’ll see these truth-tellers were reporters, photographers, cameramen, publishers, broadcasters, bloggers, citizen journalists. They were also husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, colleagues, friends.

Some were killed at gunpoint, others ambushed and fired on in the streets. Some died in custody of government security forces, others by mortar blasts.

What unites them and all journalists who report from the world’s conflict zones is tremendous courage and passion to report the truth, even in the face of danger.

In Toronto this week, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) paid tribute to these journalists who died covering the Arab uprisings, as well as others who gave their lives reporting from the world’s conflict zones.

As of Nov. 11, the CJFE reports that 89 journalists throughout the world had been killed while doing their jobs in 2011. A full list of their names is published with this column online.

This year’s CJFE gala, “a night to honour courageous reporting,” focused on the human costs of the struggle for freedom in the Arab world and recognized “the people who raised their voices in protest against repression and those who covered their stories.”

The CJFE’s annual International Press Freedom Awards went to journalists Khaled al-Hammadi of Yemen and Mohamed Abdelfattah of Egypt. Both were honoured for “their passion for free expression and their extraordinary courage.”

These journalists well understand the personal costs of reporting on revolution and speaking out when ordered to remain silent.

Abdelfattah has been blogging about human rights violations in Egypt since 2010, sending his words out through the Internet to expose the truth about Egypt’s police. While reporting from Tahrir Square last January he was beaten by Egyptian security forces and detained for seven hours in an underground cell.

Abdelfattah was unable to make it to Toronto to accept his award because he is covering the ongoing unrest in Cairo, where attacks on journalists continue.

Al-Hammadi has been reporting in Yemen for 16 years for various news agencies including, Al Jazeera English TV. He also worked as a local “fixer” for the Star’s Michelle Shephard when she reported from Yemen in 2009.

He has been threatened, attacked and jailed for his determination to report freely and fairly. He stays mainly in a tent in Sanaa’s Change Square. Leaving to return home to his wife and six children means risking being gunned down by government snipers perched atop city buildings.

“As a reporter, I face a lot of critics in the government who want me to stop writing,” al-Hammadi, who made his first visit to Canada for the CJFE gala, told me last week.

Clearly al-Hammadi understands the perils of his job and the ultimate price he could pay to continue reporting the truth in his country. But, as with all transactions, there is both a price and a value at stake for him and for all journalists who risk their lives for freedom of expression.

The value of freedom to tell the truth about tyrants?

Priceless, of course.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on Nov. 26, 2011.

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