Thursday, August 16, 2018

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Boston Globe has put out the call to newspapers nationwide to publish independent opinion pieces today that counter the notion that journalists are “fake” and “enemies of the people.” My modest contribution to this initiative, below, has also been published online by The Kansas City Star.

From Kashmir to Cameroon to Kansas City, journalists aren't 'enemies of the people'
Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari  is not an enemy of the people. Neither are the dozens of Cameroonian journalists I met in July, or American journalists like Scott Simon or Laura Ziegler. Actually, these journalists and their colleagues are the exact opposite of enemies: they are servants of the people.

 As we know, community service usually requires some type of sacrifice. For American journalists, these sacrifices might include their peace of mind and having to endure the growing controversy and instability that comes with their vocation. Every day, journalists dodge insults and false accusations, and forge ahead with what must seem like a Sisyphean task of trying to educate citizens about the lives of the voiceless and marginalized in our society. For example, NPR’s Scott Simon recently produced a brilliant, emotional story about how forced separation affected one Guatemalan migrant family. This heart wrenching piece will no doubt be criticized as hopelessly sentimental and biased—the product of a “snowflake.” One can respectfully disagree with Simon’s story selection or the tone of his piece. However, I challenge anyone to listen to this story and come away with the conclusion that Scott Simon is an enemy of the people.

In Kansas City, it seems equally inconceivable that any sane person could think that the dedicated journalists at the Kansas City Star or KCUR-FM, for example, are enemies of the people. Who could believe that the Star’s Mara Rose Williams’ exemplary reporting about education (both K-12 and university), or her numerous tweets touting the accomplishments of the area’s students (“Lincoln College Prep Poets Finish in Top 10”; “Student Wins First Place in Photographic Technology”) position her as anyone’s enemy? The same can be said of any of the fine reporters and producers at KCUR like Laura Ziegler, whose recent insightful story about Tonganoxie, Kansas exemplifies journalism’s potential to serve local communities. Ziegler, Steve Kraske, Gina Kaufmann and their colleagues certainly are not enemies of the people.

While these American journalists feel like they’re figuratively under fire, journalists elsewhere in the world literally are under fire, justifiably fearing arrest, injury, or even death for doing nothing more than performing their duties. The “enemies of the people” rhetoric coming from the U.S. provides a convenient justification for authoritarian governments to crack down on journalists and journalism.
This is exactly what’s happening in Cameroon, where a paranoid government regularly abuses journalists. During my month teaching peace journalism in Cameroon, I heard dozens of stories of reporters who were threatened, beaten, and jailed for merely doing their jobs. In fact, I witnessed government intimidation first hand, as gendarmes swooped down on one of my workshops and shut it down. Instead of being intimidated by this raid, the Cameroonian journalists in my workshop became more defiant and committed to doing their jobs and serving their communities. Cameroon’s journalists are not anyone’s enemies.

Youngblood (l), and Bukhari (r, in white) at Rising Kashmir
Like his Cameroonian brethren, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Rising Kashmir newspaper in Indian-controlled Kashmir, did his best to serve his violence- plagued community by producing journalism that rejected sectarianism and sensationalism. I met Bukhari while speaking at his newspaper’s offices in 2016, and we discussed Rising Kashmir’s necessary balancing act. In volatile Kashmir, favoring either the Indian authorities or Kashmiri protesters or militants could result in the paper being raided by authorities (as it was in 2016) or the paper’s staff being the target of violence.

As with his colleagues in Cameroon and in the U.S., it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could consider Bukhari an enemy of the people. Yet, sadly, this is exactly what happened two months ago, when an assassin’s bullet cut down Bukhari and two of his bodyguards in front of his newspaper’s offices.

Shujaat Bukhari knew better than most that words matter, and that inflammatory rhetoric  like “enemies of the people” imperils not only the practice of journalism but also journalists themselves.
One can disagree respectfully with journalists and argue that they’re biased. But spouting vitriol like “enemies of the people” ignores the essential  public service being performed by journalists, and disrespects the memory of Shujaat Bukhari and his 1,312 colleagues who have been killed worldwide since 1992. (Committee to Protect Journalists)

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