Killing Journalists Got Easier on the World’s Front Lines

Syria has retained its top spot as the deadliest country for journalists while Egypt is catching up quickly.

The 2014 edition of “Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World’s Front Lines,” just published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), documents how those who would illuminate dark transactions and murderous regimes continue to be censored, tormented and shot by the forces they seek to expose.

The release of “Attacks” coincided with the chaotic court appearance in Cairo last week of three Al Jazeera journalists who testified from a cage in the dock. They are charged with abetting the Muslim Brotherhood, now classified as a terrorist organization since the July 2013 army coup.

How a magical sprinkling of words turns a person into a target is a leitmotif of the volume’s nine sections.

Other reporters simply disappear. “Where did all the reporters go?” CPJ’s experts ask as they visit Neza, a concrete conurbation in the outskirts of Mexico City.

Just as drug cartels operate easily in the northern states, a mere 15 miles from the capital is a place run by criminals, the report says.

Drug Lords

As described by a policeman, Neza’s leaders simply “turned over” the city to the Familia Michoacana, one of the country’s top cartels, letting it run wild with drug sales, kidnappings and wholesale extortion of businesses.

Reporters have been frightened into silence. The “no news” Neza may well become the model town for many parts of a drug-infested globe.

Elsewhere, CPJ describes the disappearance of witnesses in Pakistan and the stifling of a mushrooming blogosphere in Vietnam.

Syria is steeped in blood. Since March 2011, at least 51 reporters and media workers have died there (including the U.S. reporter Marie Colvin who was killed by a rocket in Homs), while 30 others were missing as of November 2013.

Exuding its own atmosphere of dread is the U.S. National Security Agency’s new data center in Bluffdale, Utah, a vast 1.5 million-square-foot facility that began booting up in the fall of 2013 and receives a chapter of its own.

Long-forgotten conversations can live on forever in dusty Bluffdale, along with e-mails, banking, Internet and other information, systematically inhaled by the spy agency’s global network of suction hoses and secreted into data reservoirs.

Broken Promise

“The project represents a massive expansion of the NSA’s capacities and a profound threat to press freedom worldwide,” writes Geoffrey King, the CPJ’s Internet advocacy coordinator.

Looking for patterns in the metadata, a search engine can reconstruct the daily details of anyone who has aroused suspicion. It will become very hard to guarantee confidentiality to sources.

CPJ’s own spies think Bluffdale is designed for at least five exabytes (one exabyte equals one billion gigabytes) of data -- the rough equivalent of all the conversations since the dawn of time.

That’s a lot of blather.

“Just because you call the pizza guy and I call the same pizza guy doesn’t mean we have a relationship,” says William Binney, a NSA veteran and top code breaker, who resigned after spending 30 years with the agency and says the government keeps tabs on all reporters. It’s so easy to do.

Hopeful Sprigs

China appears frequently in these pages, savoring the hypocritical responses to Edward Snowden’s revelations and toying with cowardly advertisers. The extent of NSA’s spying did take the onus off their own enthusiastic hacking and make Baidu an even more restrictive search engine.

CPJ found small sprigs of hope in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani, the new president, with a celebrated twitter account, might be more open to communication than the nightmarish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s spirit of free inquiry lives on, despite periodic threats from the ruling elite who prefer their own version of the news.

Still, there’s little reason to be optimistic about freedom of speech and the right to privacy in coming times.

Just after “Attacks” was released, Turkey assured itself an even bigger chapter in CPJ’s next volume by passing a regulation that protects its sensitive leaders from embarrassing stories and comments by negative journalists. The law shuts down parts of the Internet, while storing personal data.

An addendum will surely provide baby pacifiers for all Turks.

“Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World’s Front Lines” is published by Wiley/Bloomberg Press, and available as an e-book.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. All opinions expressed are her own.)

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