Watching the investigation into the abduction of Daniel Pearl, I felt uneasy about the endless public statements put out by Pakistani authorities. They seemed hopelessly confusing and contradictory: Pearl’s body had just been found, we were told one day; he was about to be freed, we heard on another. In addition to conveying ineptitude, this compulsive sharing of information seemed entirely counterproductive. Wasn’t it helping the kidnappers?
The Pakistanis’ profligacy with information reflected the extraordinary pressure they were under–from the US government as well as the international press. The urgent demands that the Pakistani government solve the case, and President Musharraf’s eagerness to please Washington, no doubt contributed to the apparent sloppiness of the investigation. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration deserves credit for making the case a high priority. Its efforts seem far preferable to the “quiet diplomacy” pursued by the Reagan Administration in the case of the hostages held in Lebanon (including AP correspondent Terry Anderson)–a policy that allowed them to languish in horrible isolation for years.
But the Administration’s admirable stance in the Pearl case contrasts sharply with its general dealings with the press since September 11. Over and over, the Administration has shown its hostility toward, and contempt for, the type of reporting Pearl was doing in Karachi. In Washington, the Pentagon has imposed stringent controls on the flow of information available to reporters, while in Afghanistan it has strictly limited their access to US military personnel. In one chilling incident, a US serviceman threatened to shoot Washington Post reporter Doug Struck for being too inquisitive.
Then there’s the litany of Administration efforts to suppress news: Condoleezza Rice’s urging the networks not to run the interviews with Osama bin Laden; the State Department’s demand that Voice of America not air an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar; and Colin Powell’s suggestion to the Emir of Qatar that he rein in the Al-Jazeera satellite station.
Such actions are watched closely around the world. In Zimbabwe, for instance, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, seeking to justify his government’s attacks on its journalists, said, “If the most celebrated democracies in the world won’t allow their national interests to be tampered with, we will not allow it too.” He went on to denounce his country’s independent journalists as “terrorists,” a label used to justify the use of violence and torture against them.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, thirty-seven journalists died in 2001, compared with twenty-four in the previous year; the number in prison jumped from eighty-one to 118. Much of the increase occurred after September 11. In an introduction to the committee’s forthcoming Attacks on the Press report for 2001, Ann Cooper, the group’s executive director, noted that “in 2001, when the US government complained about Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war on terror and urged American networks to censor tapes of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, other governments took careful note, and their journalists watched in alarm.” Cooper further expressed concern that the Administration, in its efforts to cultivate good relations with its new allies in the war on terrorism, would keep mum on their infringements on press freedom–for example, Vladimir Putin’s wresting of control of broadcasting in Moscow from private hands, the Russian military’s intimidation of journalists seeking to report on abuses in Chechnya and the Uzbekistan government’s quashing of its independent journalists.
In another troubling development, the Administration recently drew up plans to plant false news stories in foreign media, a move that would further depreciate the value of news and of the work done by journalists. Fortunately, the storm stirred by the revelation of that policy by the New York Times has caused the Administration to abandon it.
This flap illustrates the shortsightedness of the Administration’s approach to information. Nothing better illustrates this than its handling of the issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. By stubbornly refusing to release information about bombing incidents in which innocents may have died, the Administration has fed suspicions that it has much to hide on this score, and as a result journalists have paid far more attention to the matter.
Since the death of Daniel Pearl, the press has carried many eloquent tributes to his life, his journalism, his pluck. To further honor him, news organizations should keep exposing the actions of officials who, in the name of fighting terrorism, seek to frustrate the very type of work Pearl was doing.