Journalists face unexpected dangers globally, committee protects

By Jessica Walker

Esha Sarai was preparing to go to Sudan to report on the 2019 revolution — she had never been more afraid.

Despite her fears, the journalist’s newsroom didn’t answer any of her questions on security and safety before her trip.

Sarai is now a video producer with the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization committed to defending the rights of journalists and ensuring their safety.

“If you express concerns about safety, it’s kind of frowned upon in the industry, because you’re supposed to just be gung-ho about jumping into any danger,” Sarai said.

In 2022, at least 67 journalists were killed worldwide, the highest number recorded in five years. In the same year, 363 journalists were imprisoned.

There are statistically unsafe places for journalists, like Iraq, Ukraine and Mexico. However, press freedoms are also declining domestically, CPJ’s emergencies director Lucy Westcott said.

Interviewing Sudanese female politicians and feminists, who were pushing for representation in an unstable government, didn’t make Sarai feel unsafe. The lack of protection from her own newsroom gave her that feeling.

In the summer of 2020, Sarai again felt unsafe and unsupported when covering the presidential elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That year, hundreds of journalists were arrested, assaulted and victimized by police brutality.

“Covering protests and preparing for potential police violence in the COVID pandemic, (and) on top of it, pre-vaccine, we had nothing,” she said. “I was going out and covering protests, and my newsroom wouldn’t even give me N95s.”

Freelance journalists receive the brunt of these unsafe situations without any support from newsrooms, Westcott said.

“That’s not why people do the job of journalism. To go out there and be attacked like that,” she said. “Journalists are human beings. They’re not just robots.”

Newsroom protection policies

In 2016, Westcott was initially writing an article based on an alleged hate crime that ended up being falsely reported. Instead, she published an article about why women of minority backgrounds would feel unsafe in New York City.

“Because of that piece, I got many threats, including very violent images sent to me,” Westcott said. “And that was really, really scary. I did not feel prepared to deal with that at all or to see those things.”

Westcott’s editor did not offer her any support, besides telling her to lock her account online.

Now Westcott’s job at CPJ is to ensure newsrooms have tools to prevent a journalist from being in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation where their concerns aren’t taken seriously.

Newsrooms need to enforce not only policies for physical safety, but also policies on digital safety, she said.

Now she knows that she should have preemptively removed her personal data, like her home address and phone number, from data broker websites where it’s accessible to the public.

Not all newsrooms can support digital safety policies, and that issue needs to change, she said.

Overworked and overwhelmed

When covering her first Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Sarai immediately jumped back into work after returning to her newsroom in Washington, D.C.

Her body shut down.

Broadcast journalist and wellness coach Leslie Rangal said it’s dangerous for journalists to overexert themselves after covering difficult stories, and it’s irresponsible of newsrooms to not consider a journalist’s mental health.

“I think if the culture continues, we can expect to lose an entire generation of journalists and, in turn, that could be detrimental to the field of journalism,” she said.

Journalists are first responders, Rangal emphasized. And yet, they aren’t supported in that way.

“We’re in a world right now where mass shootings — those are normal, unfortunately,” Rangal said. “When journalists are going out there and can expect to be in these incredibly traumatic situations, all that they’re (told) is, ‘Oh, well just take a couple extra days off because it’s been a really long week.’ That is irresponsible.”

Since the news cycle is relentless, the separation of personal and private life is important, and it makes a stronger journalist, Westcott said.

On a global scale

Currently, Afghanistan and Ukraine are the two largest crises CPJ’s Emergencies Team responds to, Westcott said.

The team routinely gets about two to three emails a day from journalists around the world explaining their situation and asking for anything, from assistance to funding or flights.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, CPJ received 25,000 emails from journalists in November 2021.

As a relatively small organization, it was impossible to evacuate people by the thousands, Westcott said.

Instead, Westcott flew to Doha, Qatar, and helped a small number of Afghan journalists resettle in countries like Ireland, Germany, Canada and the United States.

“That was the rare example (that) just illustrates how chaotic that was and how unsafe those journalists felt,” Westcott said. “We still hear from Afghan journalists every single day, wanting to get out of Afghanistan.”

Journalists in Ukraine have also reached out to CPJ, as many are working near conflict and war zones, Westcott said.

The Russian law, which states journalists could face up to 15 years in prison if they report “false news” on the war, led to an influx of journalists fleeing Russia at the time.

CPJ still works on all of these crises today.

Westcott said that the unexpected dangers facing journalists in the United States still affect her personally.

“There’s a lot of attention naturally given to conflict zones and the safety of journalists there,” Westcott said. “But what about countries where it’s still violent for the press? Or where press freedom is declining? And the U.S. was certainly one of those places at the time.”

When former president Donald Trump labeled journalists as “enemies of the people,” his words had a global impact, Westcott said.

For example, in Mexico, which has one of the highest journalist mortality rates, leaders may have used Trump’s rhetoric to rationalize their lack of protections, she said.

CPJ ultimately stresses that it’s important to keep journalists safe in order to keep a democracy functioning.

“A free press means that everybody gets access to all the information that they need to make informed decisions about the rest of their life, their family’s life, about their own futures,” Westcott said.

Westcott asked, if you’re trying to silence the press, what are you really doing?

Edited by Claire Burch and JinAh Springer