Most of my Mass Comm 101 students at Virginia Commonwealth University were in elementary school when security forces in Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, arrested Dawit Isaac, a reporter for the country’s largest newspaper, in September 2001. For half of the students’ lives, Isaac has been imprisoned without charges. Last fall, a group of students took up his cause.
They created a website to publicize his case, noting that Isaac, who holds Swedish citizenship, is being held incommunicado as part of a government crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press. The students wrote letters to European leaders and human rights activists, urging them to pressure Eritrea to release Isaac. They wrote letters — including one in Arabic — to Eritrea’s president, protesting the journalist’s detention. They visited elementary and middle schools and explained Isaac’s plight. Dozens of schoolchildren also wrote letters, which we sent to the Eritrean embassy in Washington, D.C.
“Dear President Afewerki,” an 11-year-old girl wrote. “I know you’re a president and all, but that doesn’t give you — or anybody else — the reason to put an innocent man behind bars. I would like you to reconsider why you put Dawit Isaac in jail and how you would feel if someone put YOU in jail for stating your opinion.”
While one group of my students stood up for Isaac, another advocated for Mikhail Beketov, a Russian journalist who had been beaten into a coma for exposing corruption. That group used Facebook and Tumblr to highlight the attack on Beketov — and the students put up posters around campus declaring “Stop the War on Journalists.”
A third group of students agitated for the release of Adnan Hadji-Zadeh and Emin Milli, who were arrested in Azerbaijan in 2009 on trumped-up charges after satirizing the government and advocating reforms. The students wrote letters to Azerbaijani and U.S. officials, created a YouTube video and campus fliers, and circulated an online petition supporting the citizen journalists. It was probably coincidence, but before our course ended, authorities in Azerbaijan freed the two youth-movement leaders and dropped the charges.
Those class projects showed that students can learn a lot — and gain a sense of accomplishment — when they adopt an embattled journalist and publicize the oppression that reporters face in many countries. In the process, students learn not just about journalism but also about geography, history, politics and government. And they gain a deeper appreciation for the rights Americans enjoy.
“We, as Americans, take our freedom of speech for granted a lot,” said Crystal Doke, a journalism major who created a Facebook group to support Beketov. “We have become accustomed to people preaching the word of God on the side of the road, or hearing people bash the president. But what if this constitutional right we all know was taken away from us?”
I integrate such projects into my introductory mass communications course at VCU. This class enrolls more than 220 students. I have the students work in teams on media-oriented service projects, such as book drives and protests against violence in video games or sexism in advertising. Among the projects are campaigns to support journalists who have been jailed or attacked.
Osama Eqbal, an advertising major, said the Dawit Isaac campaign was hardly his first choice. But he added, “I have come to respect the cause of our class project more so than just being a grade. A real human being’s life is on the line, and I believe we may actually have taken a step towards the freedom of this young man.”
Eqbal gathered information about Isaac from the Committee to Protect Journalists and wrote letters to the Eritrean government on Isaac’s behalf.
Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ, a non-profit based in New York, said that in general, “Protest letters are a great starting point for students who want to support individual journalists, for two reasons. First, governments don’t like being shamed. Second, imprisoned or attacked journalists need to know they have not been forgotten. Protest letters and petitions help create public awareness about the failings of governments. A government shamed at the international level is more likely to correct its wrongs.”
Letters and petitions also tell embattled journalists that the outside world cares.
“When journalists are released, they often tell us how the fear of being forgotten is one of the hardest things they face during imprisonment,” Simon said. “Knowing that someone is campaigning for their release helps them keep up their spirits and continue fighting for justice.”
Jeff South is a member of the SPJ Journalism Education Committee. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. Learn more about his students’ projects here.