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Interview with Frank Smyth - 2002-02-07


MR. BORGIDA: Joining us now on our set is Frank Smyth, the Washington Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is also a reporter with considerable foreign reporting experience around the world. Mr. Smyth, thanks so much for joining us. This is a big issue certainly for lots of Americans. The role of foreign journalists in places where they are not particularly welcome, you have been there and done it. What is it like?

MR. SMYTH: Well, clearly, when I was held by the Iraqis, I was terrified for my life. There were mixtures of fear, guilt and anxiety that go through your mind. I was in prison, where I saw Iraqi citizens being tortured by Saddam Hussein's guards. And your first instinct, of course, is to say, thank God it's not me being tortured, and your second instinct is to feel guilty for having felt that. And you have genuinely stressful feelings as a result of watching and hearing other human beings being tortured.

MR. BORGIDA: Isn't there a built-in contradiction in some ways, a built-in tension for reporters? On the one hand, you obviously are looking out for your own survival and your welfare. On the other, you want to get the big story. And that sometimes drives reporters to go the extra mile and get in trouble.

MR. SMYTH: That's right. And that kind of tension is something that each journalist has to make on a case-by-case basis, and everyone has to weigh their own risks. Daniel Pearl, for example, told his colleagues he did not want to go into Afghanistan because it was too dangerous and he wanted to stay in Pakistan. And of course, nobody realized that Pakistan itself would become a more dangerous place to be in recent months.

MR. BORGIDA: Now, there wouldn't be a Committee to Protect Journalists if journalists weren't in danger around the world. Do you have some sense, if you can give our viewers, a sense of what the problem has been over the recent years, how many reporters have been hurt, killed, and so forth?

MR. SMYTH: Last year, for example, 37 journalists were killed around the world. And most of them were in fact murdered over their reporting, very often reporting on local corruption. So while Western reporters like Daniel Pearl sometimes find themselves in danger, it's usually journalists working in their own countries that wind up facing the greatest risks.

MR. BORGIDA: That is an interesting point, because some conventional wisdom would hold that, for example, a Pakistani reporter might have easier access and therefore be in less danger in Pakistan for example. Likewise, other nationals of other countries. And bringing in a Westerner to report might be more dangerous. That is not the case, though, according to your statistics.

MR. SMYTH: A country like China, for example, has more journalists in prison than any other nation in the world. Journalists now in Zimbabwe are under tremendous pressure. There has been bombings, acts of violence, as well as legal measures taken against them. Colombia is another country where there has been great acts of violence, including murder, threats, and other forms of intimidation against journalists over their specific reporting.

MR. BORGIDA: What accounts for that?

MR. SMYTH: Well, the people that are involved don't want certain information to get out. And particularly in Colombia, certain individuals, for example, do not want information to get out about military collaboration with paramilitary forces. So journalists that investigate that matter are among the ones who are most targeted.

MR. BORGIDA: That some of the groups don't want information to get out, but, likewise, some do. Would you speculate that that might be the case in the context of Mr. Pearl, that perhaps various groups would like to get their message out, they think maybe the mainstream media is not making their case, and so they do something dramatic to do that? Is that also a phenomena?

MR. SMYTH: I think this group, whoever they may be, took Mr. Pearl primarily because he is an American and they want to use him as a scapegoat to press their demands. The irony is that by taking him they are only going to discredit themselves and undermine their message. The result will be less Pakistani views being disseminated in the press in the United States because less Western journalists will go to Pakistan. And I think, in the long run, that is bad for everyone.

MR. BORGIDA: Let's talk about that. We have about 30 seconds. Are you seeing more and more reporters coming out, staying, going back in? What has this done to the overall streaming in and out of reporters to a big story?

MR. SMYTH: I think the journalists that are operating in Pakistan are restricting their movements. They are covering much less of what they might be covering otherwise. And the end result will be less news about Pakistan in the United States.

MR. BORGIDA: The views of Frank Smyth, the Washington Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Smyth is also a reporter with considerable foreign reporting experience in a number of places and has a fascinating personal story to tell as well. Thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.