A Malaysian journalist stood next to me puffing on a cigarette, quietly drawing down its tobacco and holding its intoxicating smoke deep in his lungs before releasing his stormy cloud into the air.
“You know, smoking will kill you,” someone in the crowd said, obviously as taken as I was with the delight with which the man smoked.
“In my country, smoking has killed many journalists; but it has been the smoke of a gun that has done us in,” he retorted.
This simple yet staggering exchange took place during my first trip to South Korea in 2007 while I was attending a journalism conference sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association. Clearly, it left an impression on me. I’ve made three trips to Korea, attending two World Journalism Conferences sponsored by the Journalists Association of Korea. I’ve even traveled to Taiwan for SPJ. These trips have helped me gain a fresh perspective on international journalism — the intended purpose.
From these journeys I’ve confirmed what I had previously suspected: Journalism in other countries is dangerous, even life threatening. That conference almost three years ago opened my eyes wide to the treatment of journalists outside our borders. I’ll never forget the story of the Nepalese reporter who — not once, but three times — was dragged from his home in view of his wife and children and beaten by thugs for what he had written. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 33 members of the press have been killed this year, and 760 of our colleagues have been killed since 1992. Thirty journalists are still missing.
I’ve heard plenty of stories of captivity, threats and men with guns visible following editors to and from their offices. And here in the United States we complain if we have to eat lunch and dinner at our desks in the same day.
Because of my interest in international journalism, this year I’ve asked SPJ’s International Journalism Committee to step up and strike boldly at some of these problems. SPJ is not an international organization, but we have members in several countries. Recently, I handed my SPJ president’s card to a Denver reporter who was relocating to Toronto, encouraging him to stay engaged in our organization. He said he would. Since taking office, I’ve received e-mails from journalists in Canada, India, Mexico and Germany asking for advice from our organization.
Recently, I held a groundbreaking conference call with Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The call was set up by SPJ’s International and Journalism Education Committees. For the first time, SPJ has pledged to lend real support and work collaboratively with an internationally focused journalism organization to address these concerns over journalists’ treatment.
In the coming months, SPJ and CPJ plan to set up a series of joint projects that will include dedicating a portion of SPJ’s Web site for feature stories and links to CPJ coverage and analysis along with stories of coverage of other news organization. We also talked about “adopting a foreign journalist,” allowing SPJ student chapters to work with that journalist to better understand international press freedom issues. We also hope to develop stronger programs at the chapter and regional level that can focus on international concerns.
Additionally, I’ve asked some of the journalists I’ve met on my travels to contribute their perspectives to our SPJ international blog (blogs.spjnetwork.org/ijc) and freely exchange their ideas and views with our 8,000 members in a proactive way. My trips overseas have taught me that the best way to understand what’s happening abroad is to engage our colleagues already there.
To be sure, organizations already exist that address foreign press concerns. SPJ has never taken a deeply active role in foreign issues given all of the concerns we have stateside that now include a recession, papers closing, 28,000 journalists out of work and our own federal government failing to “shield” reporters on a national level over sources. Some will ask why SPJ would spend time and energy on foreign concerns.
That would be a reasonable question if SPJ weren’t working diligently on a federal shield law, trying to set a course for journalism’s future or developing training for displaced journalists. We are working on all those issues and trying to bolster membership to a level above 9,000. We are a big organization with many irons in the fire. Some need to burn hotter than others, and some need pulled out and struck more often. But stepping up now and securing agreements that improve and protect journalism no matter where it’s practiced is the right thing for SPJ.
Think of it as our smoking cessation project.