Journalists under fire set to speak in Santa Fe

December 3, 2018

The gruesome slaying of exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey — allegedly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — was a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by journalists who are critical of authoritarian governments.

The number of news industry professionals killed while — or for — doing their jobs actually is going down, according to statistics compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, but there are other threats to news gathering.

For instance, last year was a record year for imprisoning journalists, according to the committee. A total of 262 reporters, photographers and news camera operators were jailed around the world in 2017. The worst offenders for jailing journalists were Turkey, Egypt and China.

While death or imprisonment remain real threats for real journalists in various parts of the world, the rise of “fake news” — misinformation deployed, sometimes by foreign governments, to stir up divisions — helps fuel distrust and cynicism toward institutions including news media.

These topics will be discussed and explored this week by nearly 50 journalists from around the world who are coming to Santa Fe for a four-day conference called “Journalism Under Fire.”

“We know what the problems are,” said Sandy Campbell, executive director of the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, which organized the event. “The purpose of this conference is to discuss solutions, what to do to stop it.”

Many of the scheduled speakers have harrowing personal examples of being a journalist under fire. Among those scheduled to speak at the conference:

• Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist who was the Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post when he was arrested and charged with espionage, “propaganda against the establishment” and other crimes. He was convicted in a secret trial. Rezaian eventually was released after spending about a year and a half in jail.

• Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian political cartoonist who in 2000 was imprisoned because of a cartoon depicting a prominent ayatollah as a crocodile strangling a journalist. A court ordered his release after just a few days, but death threats prompted him to flee Iran three years later. He currently lives in Toronto.

• Arbana Xharra, an investigative reporter from Kosovo known for investigating official corruption there. Xharra received death threats and public attacks on her reputation while reporting on religious extremism in the Balkans. In 2015, she won the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award for the European division. Shortly after resigning from her newspaper job, she joined Kosovo’s biggest political party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo. Several days later, she suffered a severe beating in a parking lot.

• Victor Oleynik, an exiled Russian journalist who was an editor at Metro International in Moscow. Oleynik, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has run several blogs covering politics, culture and education. Earlier this year, following an anti-Putin rally that turned violent, he and online journalist Anton Gromov launched a database of those responsible for beating up dissidents. Both fled Russia after pro-Putin websites accused them of being American spies.

• Olga Yurkova, a Ukrainian journalist and co-founder of StopFake.org, a fact-checking website set up to debunk Russian propaganda in her country, where some of the Putin regime’s fake news tactics were first deployed.

The conference is organized around daily themes. Tuesday, the event’s opening, will include a panel discussion called “Justice for Journalists Under Fire.”

Wednesday’s speeches and panel discussions center on “Freedom of the Press, Fake News, Persecution, and Exile.”

On Thursday, Campbell said, the international journalists will split up into as many as 24 small groups based on geography to talk about problems in their parts of the world.

Friday’s presentations will include several New Mexico journalists addressing subjects such as local journalism.

The Santa Fe conference is just one stop for what amounts to a national tour, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, for the dozens of international journalists, Campbell said. But this city is one of the few locales where all of the visiting journalists are scheduled to appear. In most of the other cities on the tour, conferences will feature smaller groups of speakers.

Other sponsors of “Journalism Under Fire” include the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter, the New Mexico Press Association, KSFR radio and The New Mexican.

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