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

‘Nothing but blues’: Jean Weston lives as mother, musician

By Mason Atwell

It had been years.

Jean Weston positioned her blue aluminum walker next to her, pulled out the bench and took a seat. Running her fingers over the keys, tracing the hills and valleys of the sharps and flats, she began to play.

“These are the blues, nothing but blues,” she sang to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “The Birth of the Blues.” “Oh, they say some people long ago were searching for a different tune, one that they could croon as only they can.”

Her wrinkled hands flew over the keys with grace, and the black Essex grand piano abided as her marionette of melody. She closed her eyes and matched the orchestral inflections and rhythm, making known that it was far from her first rodeo.

 “They nursed it, then they rehearsed it and they sent out that news that the Southland, they gave birth to the blues,” she harmonized in decrescendo.

 In Weston’s 93 years on Earth, she has loved, lost and learned.

Discovering passion in Peoria

“There’s a saying that goes, ‘If it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere,’” Weston reminisced in talking about her hometown in rural Illinois. 

Weston grew up in a musical household as one of three children. With her vocalist mother and musical father, Weston and her siblings found a similar passion at young ages. When festivities occurred in the Westons’ family room of their middle-class home, four-year-old Jean Weston played the piano.

Weston played at every willing venue and church, taught her younger sister music and found time for herself. Weston’s passion also afforded her a music scholarship to attend Michigan State University.

In the spring of 1948, she graduated and accepted a job directing orchestral groups for a high school in Pontiac, Michigan, where she lived with a group of girls nearby.

“I moved in there and the parties started, of course,” she chuckled. 

Combining two loves

One particular guest, Richard ‘Dick’ Weston, made a party-crashing appearance at one of their cottage’s summertime shindigs on Fisher Lake. Traveling in a posse known as the “General Motors guys,” Richard and Jean Weston met that night. After Richard Weston’s incessant asking, they began dating. 

“We were engaged after two and a half months and got married the next June,” Jean Weston said smiling. “Love of my life.” 

Shortly after they married in 1952, the couple moved to Bloomfield Township in Oakland County, Michigan, where Richard Weston oversaw General Motors Co. sales in the Great Lakes region.

Here, Jean Weston found the Opera House Restaurant in Grosse Pointe. Alongside her piano-playing accompanist, she honed her passion for singing operas and musicals for the evening dinner crowd once her husband returned from work.

“He was my best audience,” Jean Weston said when thinking about her husband’s love for her restaurant performances. 

 A few years later, Richard Weston earned a promotion to GM sales manager for the East Coast. The couple and their three children — Richard, Brent and Laura — found a home in Long Island for Richard Weston’s work.

“I just couldn’t get enough of that,” Jean Weston said. “I got into that city as much as I could.”

Finding time for music

While her love for music persisted, her ability to spend time on it dwindled as she raised their children. Richard Weston refused to let anything get in the way.

 “As he advanced through his career, I would get a sitter and he would get home in time to take over from them and I would go perform,” she said smiling.

After living in New York for 11 years, the Weston family returned to Detroit for Richard Weston’s job. However, Richard Weston soon joined the Cold War. While most families stayed stateside, Jean Weston and her children followed Richard Weston to Germany where they lived with a local family for two years.

“They had two children and they were just lovely,” Jean Weston said. “We would sing and play the piano together all the time.”

Before their time in Germany concluded, Jean and Richard Weston traveled throughout nine European countries — an adventure they always dreamed of taking together. 

Settling down

The Weston family ultimately returned to Detroit and the children left for college. Jean Weston resumed teaching and performing and Richard Weston worked until he retired at 65. They then relocated to the Treyburn Subdivision in Durham, North Carolina, an area Richard Weston loved during his travels for GM. 

The empty nesters remained here until Richard Weston died in 2012. 

“I remember he had been in the bed quite a bit as he was getting frailer,” Jean Weston explained. “And one day he decided he just wanted to get up. And that surprised me because he had been in bed for a while. And so he just started walking very quickly, walked out of the bedroom, and suddenly he collapsed, he went down.”

Jean Weston called an in-home assistant for help getting her husband back in bed. 

“He was in bed for some time after that, and just passed away,” Jean Weston said.

Return to solitude

Since that time, Jean Weston relocated to Azalea Estates Gracious Retirement Living as a grandmother to nine.

“They don’t visit all that often with Laura being on the West Coast and the others’ busy lives,” Jean Weston said, looking down at her hands. 

Jean Weston reads, occasionally sings and frequently reminisces.

When asked about the moments she could go back and relive, she simply responded, “All the really happy times I spent with my husband.”

While she no longer wears them, her wedding rings are a memento safely kept with her middle son Brent – the rings that Richard Weston let her pick out all those years ago. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve worn them,” she said. “But the diamond is an emerald cut, it’s beautiful.”

“I’ve often thought the next time I see Brent, I’ll tell him that I’d like to wear my rings again before I die,” Jean Weston said contently.

Even in her jubilance and relatively independent lifestyle, Jean Weston experiences the weariness and transitions of old age.

“Her cognitive ability and memory has been slowly declining in addition to her mobility,” assisted living staff Wendy Daigle said. 

The piano seldom gets the company from Jean Weston that it used to. 

The final note

There is a method to her madness, to-live-by dispositions and outlooks on life that she obtained along the way. 

“She appreciates the good things in life,” Johnny, activity coordinator of Azalea Estates Gracious Retirement Living, said. “She is a real treat to be around.”

Through hardship, humor and humility, Jean Weston learned to “meet each opportunity with enthusiasm, because there’s something to glean from each opportunity I feel. I’ve just tried to be open to do that, and also have a grounding in a strong faith.”

Jean Weston takes pride in the broad scope of faith she received from her fundamentalist childhood church, Episcopalian husband and experience singing in various churches.

Her open mind and acceptance shed light on the person she is.

Her advice is “finding the best of everyone you encounter and trying to relate to this human experience as we go along.”

“Realizing that everyone has something to offer and knowing that you do as well,” Jean Weston said smiling.

Edited by Claire Burch and JinAh Springer