The Vital Role of Global Journalism in the Digital Age

A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists shows the new challenges they face around the world.


The Committee to Protect Journalists has just marked its thirtieth anniversary, in a year notable for the breadth of international protest movements and the expansion of digital technology for the collection and distribution of information. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become embedded in the dissemination of events as they take place and have impacted the definition of news in fundamental respects. In ways unimagined a decade ago, the streets are filled with amateurs. Their efforts at working around the repressive techniques of authoritarian governments have made a significant difference in newsgathering. Trained journalists and the "citizen" reporters who supply so much of the raw material for them are at the forefront of upheaval, with consequences that are as dangerous as they are illuminating.

CPJ's annual report, along with the many additional surveys available on its website, provide unusually valuable insight into the organization's work: monitoring the role of journalism and defending the rights of journalists wherever unrest spreads. Joel Simon, who served first as deputy director and since 2006 as CPJ's executive director, summarized its activities in the introduction to this year's annual report:

The tumult of events around the world has tilted us wildly from exhilaration to despair and back again--sometimes within the space of a single day. We are privileged at CPJ to work with journalists on the frontlines of history, but we have never worked on so many fronts at once. From Arab Spring to bloody summer and onward, we have been consumed this year with events across the Middle East and North Africa. CPJ tracked attacks against journalism in real time, reporting on Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria--not to mention the ongoing crisis in Iran, one of the world's leading jailers of journalists. We did all this while responding to other crisis situations--a renewed crackdown on dissent in China following calls for a "Jasmine Revolution", a spate of attacks against journalists caught up in the outbreak of civil war in Ivory Coast and a spike in the murder of journalists in Pakistan...

With our 30th anniversary in 2011, CPJ enjoys greater influence and international reach than ever before. We also serve an exponentially growing constituency as more journalists today work independently without institutional guidance or support in cases of emergency.

Leafing through the pages of its report and scanning the extensive online output, what is striking is which countries stand out as particularly repressive, and, occasionally, where unexpected progress has been made. Under the headline "Imprisonments jump worldwide, and Iran is the worst," CPJ recorded a 20 percent increase in the jailing of journalists, to the highest level since the mid-1990s. Much of that is attributable to the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, but Iran, with 42 journalists behind bars, ranks first. On the other hand, CPJ found that, for the first time since 1996, no Cuban journalists are in custody, a culmination of eight years of advocacy that led to the gradual release of 29 who had been arrested in a major crackdown in 2003. Another major survey was headlined: "For journalists, coverage of political unrest proves deadly." At least 43 journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in 2011, with seven deaths in Pakistan the largest number, followed by Libya and Iraq, with five each.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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