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'The Guardians And The War On Truth': Journalism In Today's World

Activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The posters read in Arabic:' Khashoggi's Friends Around the World'. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The posters read in Arabic:' Khashoggi's Friends Around the World'. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

With David Folkenflik

Freedom of the press. Reporters face jail, violence or worse — how can they be safe? And how can the truth get out? We’ll speak with journalists who have been in the arena.


Jason Rezaian, Washington Post columnist and former Tehran bureau chief. He was imprisoned by Iran for 18 months on espionage charges. Author of “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out.” (@jrezaian)

Janine di Giovanni, longtime war correspondent. Professor at Yale University. Author of “The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria,” about the threats facing women journalists in conflict. (@janinedigi)

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee To Protect Journalists. Author of “We Want To Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.” (@Joelcpj)

Interview Highlights

On the current state of journalist persecution

Jason Rezaian: “This is something that yes I was, and so many other poeple are going through this. I want to keep the focus on what people are enduring right now, because this is not a problem that was imposed on me and stopped with me. It didn’t start with me either. I’d like to spend our time talking about people that are suffering this fate today, and what we can do about stopping it moving forward — if there is something that we can do to stop it moving forward.”

Joel Simon: “We have a new report out just yesterday about journalists imprisoned around the world. For the third year in a row, it’s over 250. It’s near a record number and this is becoming the new normal. Hundreds of journalists imprisoned around the world. The leading jailers of journalists around the world are in Turkey, in China, and in Egypt where there’s a major ongoing crackdown underway. Saudi Arabia, there’s been a big crackdown and an escalation in repression there. So their crackdowns are actually impeding out ability — people in this country and all around the world — to stay informed because when murder and imprisonments are highly effectively form of censorship. And so this affects all of us, and that’s why we have to stand up for the rights of journalists and ensure that they are able to do their work.”

On how the world and its institutions of power sees journalists

JR: “I wouldn’t say that we deserve a pat on the back or a thanks for what we do. But I do think it’s important that we’re acknowledged as human beings doing a job. Unfortunately, many governments around the world, have taken to really discrediting our very humanity in the ways that they target us and the ways that they talk about us, and increasingly in the ways that they track people down and kill us. And I think that it starts at the top and unfortunately the president that we have here in the United States at the moment hasn’t been fulfilling that traditional role of protecting and advocating for free expression around the world. And unfortunately, I think the words that he has had for the press have been an indicator, a signal to some of the worst actors … that they can get away with this. And I don’t think there’s an effective tool right now, we haven’t developed an effective tool to counteract it.”

On how things have changed

Janine di Giovanni: “I think the difference now if you’re going to report on something in a closed country — let’s say Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea — if they’re not letting journalists in, we pretty much know that there’s something going on there that we need to be reporting, that we need to be there. I work alone. I don’t have a crew with me, I don’t have security, I don’t have armed guys, and in the past, it would usually be that I go somewhere — usually walk over a mountain and walk into the country — and I would work with the local journalist and try to uncover what was going on. Now, that is increasingly dangerous as we’re being targeted, as we’re being identified, as human rights reporters or as reporters that regimes do not like. We’re being threatened, and I think what it means is that the quality of reporting that’s coming out has changed drastically.”

From The Reading List

Time: “Time Person of the Year: The Guardians and the War on Truth” — “The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.

“Every detail of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing made it a sensation: the time stamp on the surveillance video that captured the Saudi journalist entering his country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2; the taxiway images of the private jets bearing his assassins; the bone saw; the reports of his final words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ recorded on audio as the life was choked from him.

“But the crime would not have remained atop the world news for two months if not for the epic themes that Khashoggi himself was ever alert to, and spent his life placing before the public. His death laid bare the true nature of a smiling prince, the utter absence of morality in the Saudi-U.S. alliance and—in the cascade of news feeds and alerts, posts and shares and links—the centrality of the question Khashoggi was killed over: Whom do you trust to tell the story?”

Wall Street Journal: “Senate Passes Resolution to Withdraw U.S. Support for War in Yemen” — “The U.S. Senate ignored appeals by the Trump administration and passed a resolution on Thursday to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen, delivering a bipartisan setback for the president’s Middle East policy.

“The measure, which passed in a 56-41 vote, pits a Senate upset by the October killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents against the Trump administration, which views Saudi Arabia as a vital strategic ally. Seven Republicans joined with all 49 members of the Democratic caucus to support the resolution. Three Republican senators were absent.

“The resolution, sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah), would withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-allied Houthi militants in a conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. Among other elements, it would bar U.S. refueling of Saudi planes and scale back the U.S. presence in the region.”

Reuters: “Myanmar court jails Reuters reporters for seven years in landmark secrets case” — “A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and jailed them for seven years, in a landmark case seen as a test of progress toward democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

“Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin said Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, breached the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they collected and obtained confidential documents.

“‘The defendants … have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years,’ the judge said, adding that the time served since they were detained on Dec. 12 would be taken into account. The defense can appeal the decision to a regional court and then the supreme court.

“The verdict comes amid mounting pressure on the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in west Myanmar in August 2017.

“More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled into Bangladesh since then, according to U.N. agencies.”

Excerpt from “The Morning They Came For Us” by Janine di Giovanni

Darayya – Saturday 25 August 2012

The mechanic searched for his family for three days. He combed through destroyed buildings, checked under piles of rubble. He listened for sounds of someone calling out for help, someone who might be buried. He listened for anything. He listened for the voice of his father.

Before the war, he fixed cars. Now the sight in his right eye was gone, lost during the battle in Darayya – he thought the shrapnel that lodged in his eye came either from a helicopter bomb or possibly from a grenade. He wasn’t sure. Blinded in one eye, he moved through the rubble like a ghost.

‘Baba!’ he called out until his voice grew hoarse.

He kept searching at night, even when it was too dangerous to be on the broken streets. There weren’t many people left in Darayya, and he was afraid of the ones who were.

On the third day of searching, he found his father’s body, on a farm on a road leading out of town. It was only luck that led him to take that road, and he had begun to feel that the searching was in vain. The old man was lying in the farmhouse kitchen, and there were three other bodies, beginning to decay.

They were boys, between the ages of sixteen and twenty. He closed their eyes and went back to find a car he could use to bring their bodies back to town.

He was grief-stricken, when telling me this story.

‘Can you tell me why they would kill an old man?’ he asked, bent over crying. ‘An old man? He can’t fight any more.’

The dead man’s son lit a cigarette. He searched carefully for his words. ‘This is not my Syria. When I see the sorrow that happens in our towns, all I think is – this is not my Syria.’

The people I later met spoke of the killing sprees that had happened on some of the hottest days of the year in the poor Sunni community of Darayya. They remembered ‘intense shelling from helicopters with mounted machine-guns’, ‘mortars from a government military airport near the Mezzeh neighbourhood’, and ‘snipers in buildings’ north of the city.

They spoke of soldiers moving from house to house, of informers pointing out where the activists lived; they spoke of bodies lying in the street; of groups of civilians hiding underground only to be found, lined up and summarily executed. The UK’s Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, called it ‘an atrocity of a new scale, requiring unequivocal condemnation from the international community’.

Darayya, a suburb seven kilometres south of Damascus, was once known for its handmade wooden furniture. It also featured in another version of the St Paul legend. Darayya s allegedly the place where Saul had a vision of God, and became a believer. From Darayya, the enlightened man began the journey to Damascus.

But there was no miraculous vision here in August 2012, when more than 300 people, including women and children, were killed – the town was ‘cleansed’.

I went there a few days after it happened. I was driven by a Sunni resident, Maryam, and we passed easily through the government military checkpoints manned by young soldiers with stubble, holding Kalashnikovs. I wore a white headscarf like Maryam, and dark sunglasses – my face was hardly visible. The soldiers, thinking we were both locals, casually waved us through. As we drove through the last checkpoint, Maryam told me about one of Darayya’s most famous heroes: a twenty-six-year-old named Ghaith Matar.

Matar was a protester, but he wanted ‘nothing but peace’, Maryam said. He used to bring government soldiers Damascus roses and bottled water during demonstrations. ‘That was before the demonstrators got met by bullets,’ she said.

Matar was killed in September 2011, one year before the alleged Darayya massacre, leaving behind a twenty-year-old pregnant widow. There are rumours that he was tortured before being killed – that his throat was cut out.

The killings in Darayya came eighteen months into the war. If the figures for the dead were as high as people told us, if the civilians were really murdered in basements and shelters, laid out in the courtyard of the Abu Suleiman al-Darani Mosque, or dumped in the cemetery in the centre of town – it would be the single largest atrocity of the Syrian war.

Maryam’s family came from Darayya, but they had been at their holiday home near the coast when the massacre took place between 23 and 25 August. ‘It’s a good thing Mama wanted to go down to the sea,’ she said, taking in the destruction – the bombed-out tailor’s and greengrocer’s shops, the blocks of flats with their top floors blown off, the rank trash piles on corners, uncollected. There was the unmistakable smell of rotting corpses inside houses.

It was clear, despite her sangfroid, that Maryam was shocked. She had not yet decided if she supported the government or the rebels. She wanted to see for herself what had happened. She said, ‘I am an open-minded woman.’ Three months earlier, during the Houla massacre,4 Maryam told me adamantly that she did not believe the reports that hundreds were dead.

Now, the reports were saying as many as 500 people were killed in Darayya, a town where her family had had an apartment for years, where she bought pine-scented chairs, a chest of drawers that she described to me in great detail: ‘The craftsmanship, you cannot believe . . .’

As we drove, she pointed out where things once were before they got levelled: ‘See, there was the house of the doctor . . . that was the school . . . oh no, that was where my auntie had a shop . . .’ In the ashen aftermath of war, it is impossible to imagine what Darayya looked like before, or what really happened here.

To me, it looked as if it had been bombed first from the air, then house-to-house operations must have been conducted. People began to gather around us when we got out of the car – they wanted someone to hear their stories. They were shouting. They wanted to be witnesses. Some said men and boys were killed at close range with guns; others said knives were used.

‘The problem is now there is no food, no water, no ­electricity,’ J., the father of one family, told me.

J. had let his two children go outside to play and they were climbing up and down in the rubble, using it as a bridge, pretending to build small houses.

J. told me to go and talk to his smallest daughter. ‘There’s nothing to do, no one to play with,’ said six-year-old Rauda. ‘My friends left when the bombing started. I stayed close to my mother and held her. But she said we were not leaving.’

The government reports in the aftermath, and amidst the international condemnation, were that there was no massacre in Darayya. Instead, it was a ‘prisoner exchange’ gone wrong. The British reporter Robert Fisk, who has worked in the region for many years, accompanied Syrian Army troops into town. Fisk wrote in the Independent on 29 August 2012:

But the men and women to whom we could talk, two of whom had lost their loved ones on Daraya’s day of infamy four days ago, told a story quite different from the popular version that has gone round the world: theirs was a tale of hostage-taking by the Free Syrian Army and desperate prisoner-exchange negotiations between the armed ­opponents of the regime and the Syrian army, before Bashar al-Assad’s government decided to storm into the town and seize it back from rebel control.

Officially, no word of such talks between sworn enemies has leaked out. But senior Syrian officers spoke to the Independent about how they had ‘exhausted all possibilities of reconciliation’ with those holding the town, while citizens of Daraya told us that there had been an attempt by both sides to arrange a swap of civilians and off-duty soldiers in the town – apparently kidnapped by rebels because of their family connections with the government army – with prisoners in the army’s custody. When these talks broke down, the army advanced into Daraya, only six miles from the centre of Damascus.

Fisk interviewed two people who claimed to have seen dead people on the streets even before the Syrian Army entered the town.

One woman who gave her name as Leena said . . . [she] saw at least ten male bodies lying on the road near her home. ‘We carried on driving past, we did not dare to stop, we just saw these bodies in the street.’ She said Syrian troops had not yet entered Daraya.

Another man said that although he had not seen the dead in the graveyard, he believed that most were related to the government army and included several off-duty conscripts. ‘One of the dead was a postman – they included him because he was a government worker,’ the man said.

Fisk concluded: ‘If these stories are true, then the armed men . . . were armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops.’5

But, to be fair, Fisk was accompanying government troops and perhaps the two people he interviewed told him what the soldiers around him wanted to hear (or they were frightened). The people I saw said that the government tanks had rolled right down the centre of town, destroying everything in sight, crushing the street lights, the houses, even the graveyard walls. Then the killing started.

There seemed to be no window left in town that was not shattered. In the middle of some buildings that were crushed like accordions, I saw a lone cyclist with a cardboard box of tinned groceries strapped to a rack over his back wheel. He said he was trying to find his home.

In another building, I found a man hiding in the aftermath of the killing. He had just been released after six months in prison.

Rashid had been arrested in December 2011, although he said he was not a member of the Free Syrian Army.

‘They told me that I was one of the organizers of the strikes,’ he said.

He was taken to Jawiya Air Force Prison near the Mezzeh neighbourhood, stripped of his clothes, made to stand outside in freezing temperatures and doused with cold water. He was then beaten with sticks and fists.

‘I stayed there for five hours, freezing, my hands tied behind my back, and they kept asking if I was organizing strikes.’

He was then hung with his hands behind his back so that his shoulders were pulled out of their sockets. He kicks off his dusty sandals to show the bottoms of his feet and the angry, red scars that reveal where he had been whipped and beaten. ‘The electrocution was the easiest of it.’

At night he was kept in a four- by five-metre room that he says housed 150 men. They all had to stand and make one place for sleeping, in which they took turns lying down. He stayed six months in jail.

‘The problem is they forget about you,’ he said. ‘Then one day, they just came and said, okay, it was a mistake, you can go.’ Human Rights organizations have documented that there are – as of this writing – nearly 38,000 Syrians now being held in detention, often without their families ­knowing their whereabouts or why they were taken.

Rashid describes the attack on Darayya, which took place the Saturday before, the fourth day of the Eid holiday.

‘The shelling started at 7.30 a.m. There is no sound more frightening than rockets,’ he said.

Sunday continued with more shooting and shelling, and then finally, on Monday, he said the army arrived. Most people hid in basements. Some were pulled out and executed outside; according to witnesses, others were sprayed with machine-gun fire.

‘We had some informers [the word in Arabic is awhyny] who pointed out where Opposition people were,’ he said. ‘They let the women run away but they shot the men one by one. In some cases, they went into the basement and killed old men and children – just because they were boys.’

Another woman who was cooking for victims and taking food to the mosque, Umm Hussein, was hurrying along during the bombardment with her young daughter and twenty-year-old son. A truck went by with soldiers shouting: ‘With our life, with our blood, we will fight for Assad!’

Umm Hussein and her children did not make it in time: they were stopped and while she and her daughter were spared, her son was shot. She says his body was taken out of town; there are rumours that some victims are being moved to secondary graves, which was also the case with the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995.

But some people I meet say that the regime soldiers fed them and provided medical attention to the wounded. ‘They gave us bread,’ one man says. ‘Not all of them were monsters.’

Excerpted from THE MORNING THEY CAME FOR US by Janine di Giovanni. Copyright © 2017 by Janine di Giovanni. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Barclay Palmer produced this show for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.