Journalism's Red Cross

By Ricchiardi, Sherry | American Journalism Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Journalism's Red Cross


Ricchiardi, Sherry, American Journalism Review


Understaffed and low-profile, the Committee to protect Journalists rides to the rescue of reporters and editors who run afoul of governments hostile to the press.

A campaign of terror against the media was escalating in Nigeria when Dapo Olorunyomi heeded the advice of colleagues and vanished underground. The defiant editor had survived arrests and torture. Now a "shoot on sight" order, issued by the military, hung over him like a death shroud.

"It was a license to kill me," says Olorunyomi of the events that unfolded in June 1995. "I knew [security police] wouldn't stop."

What Olorunyomi didn't know was that determined forces in the United States were aware of his plight and already were planning a rescue. Instead, the journalist believed he was alone. condemned to die eventually for his "crime"--an unrelenting investigation of Nigeria's corrupt dictator ship.

Today, Olorunyomi credits the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists with being the lifeline that helped him escape thugs from Nigeria's dreaded SSS--State Security Service--who constantly dogged him. "Somehow [CPJ] found me. They initiated contact, secured funds for my escape and arranged for legal documents so I could come to the U.S.," says the exiled editor, who calls himself a "prisoner of conscience."

"Without them, I believe I would be dead or in prison."

After his escape in early 1996, Olorunyomi was named International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review and received the Freedom-to-Write Award from PEN Center USA West. The journalist, who is spearheading a campaign to free imprisoned colleagues in his homeland, calls CPJ "a life saver."

What the International Red Cross is to victims of famine and floods, the Committee to Protect Journalists has become to hundreds of reporter s and editor s operating under siege in the deadliest spots for the media around the globe.

This small band of Americans--there are only 13 full time staffers--has become a main line of defense when a journalist disappears behind prison walls or is ordered to stand trial for treason in such remote regions as Tajikistan and Gambia.

Their primary weapons--fax machines, telephones and the Internet--allow them to mobilize loud international outcries that reach the highest seats of power, including the U.S. State Department, American embassies and world bodies like the United Nations, asking them to defend journalists. At times, their influence reaches all the way to the White House.

CPJ scored a coup in October when President Clinton raised press freedom issues with Argentine leaders during a visit to Buenos Aires. At a briefing on that trip, Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry noted that it was the Committee to Protect Journalists that raised "very serious concerns about the degree of harassment and intimidation" encountered by local media.

"We see ourselves filling a gap between local journalists in places like Argentina and the foreign policy community in the U.S.," says CPJ Executive Director Bill Orme.

Operating on the notion that even cold-hearted dictators are sensitive to international pressure, especially if it is tied to the threat of losing economic aid, the committee orchestrates outrage over press freedom violations. "We practice a delicate combination of diplomacy and advocacy," says Orme.

CPJ's hallmark is the annual "Attacks on the Press" watchdog report, a meticulous account of the murder, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists in more than 100 countries. The investigations are conducted on-site in some of the riskiest spots in the world.

Committee staffers and recruits, including high-profile journalists like Peter Arnett and Walter Cronkite, travel on fact-finding missions to places such as Turkey, Vietnam and Cambodia. Sometimes they cross into danger zones like Tajikistan, which has been one of the world's worst killing fields for journalists, or Cuba, where reporters routinely are arrested (see Free Press, November). …

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