Journalism is different than other forms of mass communication because its practitioners refer to it as an essential part of democratic society. In the United States everyone is guaranteed the right to free speech, but the Constitution goes even farther, specifically protecting the freedom of the press as well.
The American Press Institute, an organization made up of professional journalists, says that journalism”provides citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments” (Kovach and Rosenstiel).
Journalism is a source of surveillance, correlation and cultural transmission. The press keeps people up to date on local news and what people around them are thinking and talking about, and it helps preserve and pass down cultural stories and values over time (Pavlik, 269). But most reporters would tell you that surveillance is the most important aspect of journalism. Reporters research and report on those in positions of power to act for the good of the public.
Because of their unique obligation to the public welfare, journalists often come under fire from the authority figures they are duty-bound to scrutinize. Early investigative journalists like Upton Sinclair and Nellie Bly exposed corruption, harmful business practices and social ills to inform the public and were called “muckrakers” by President Theodore Roosevelt. Although many modern investigative reporters wear the title with pride, Roosevelt meant it as an insult (Stein, 1979).. Exposing problems in communities where powerful people’s reputations, jobs, and legacies hang on the idea that they are doing a perfectly good job makes enemies.
There are a number of ways that authorities can work to silence journalists. American reporters enjoy a far broader range of protections than journalists in other countries, but even then, the United State still only ranks 49th out of 180 countries for press freedom, according to the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. According to the report, at least 15 journalists were “arbitrarily” arrested while covering demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri last year- a tactic that can be used to frighten journalists away from important scenes.
Although it is extremely rare for a reporter to be imprisoned for their work in the United States, journalists can still wind up in prison for refusing to reveal confidential sources during a criminal proceeding. In investigative journalism, a reporter may speak with a source who gives that reporter information, whether that be an incriminating document or directions on how to find more information. Often, that source will only cooperate if the secrecy of their identity is guaranteed. It is a standard in journalism that reporters should never reveal the identities of these sources, both from an ethical and business perspective. Journalists work for the public good, so protecting a source who provided information for the public good is an ethical imperative. From a business perspective, if a reporter does reveal the source’s identity, the publication will have a harder time finding other sources willing to talk, negatively affecting both the quality of the news and the paper itself.
Some state have “shield laws” that specifically protect journalists from having to name their sources, but there is no federal law of the same nature. This has led to several reporters being threatened with imprisonment if they refuse to disclose the identities of their sources to investigators. This is a problem because even if they are never actually imprisoned, the threat of jail time as a possibility is a chilling effect in and of itself. It can make journalists less likely to thoroughly investigate and report on stories where they may face a risk of harassment by law enforcement officials.
These are problems in the United States, but for many international journalists, the stakes are much higher. According to the 2015 World Free Press index, at the end of 2015, over 150 journalist were imprisoned for their work and 70 had been killed, and those were only the cases in which a direct connection between the reporter’s work and the killing or imprisonment was proven. Iran is ranked 173 out of 180 in press freedom on the index, and currently has one of the largest prisons for journalists, with roughly 50 jailed at the end of 2015. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, with the help of a conservative parliament, has cracked down on independent newspapers and websites. Revolutionary Guard police forces arrest journalists and bloggers for vague charges of espionage or acts against the state. One man, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, was one of those journalists.
Jason Rezaian had been the Post’s Tehran correspondent since 2012, though he had been based in Iran since 2008 writing for other publications with his wife, also a journalist. On July 22, 2014, security forces raided his home, confiscated laptops, books, papers and other materials, and then arrested both Rezaian and his wife. His wife was released on bail in October, but Rezaian was denied release (Erdbrink, 2015). The Iranian government never disclosed what exactly Rezaian or any other reporters arrested during the raid were charged with, and they never released details on the trial or sentencing. Tehran Justice Department Head Gholam-Hossein Esmaili only said, “The security forces have the whole country under surveillance and control the activities of enemies. They will not permit our country to become a land where our enemies and their agents carry out their activities” (Agence France-Presse, 2015). On April 20th, 2015, it was revealed that the Iranian government was charging Rezaian with four crimes, including espionage and creating propaganda against the establishment.” He was convicted in a secretive trial in October and sentenced to prison for an undisclosed amount of time (Morello, 2015).
On January 16th, 2016, Rezaian was finally freed after nearly 500 days in Iranian prison. His release was part of a wider deal made between the Iranian and U.S. governments in which Iran freed four prisoners and the United States agreed to drop sanctions charges against a number of Iranian nationals. He was taken to a German hospital where he received medical care and spent long-awaited time with his family (Siemaszko, 2016).
Although Rezaian said that he wants to get back to writing the U.S.-Iran story at some point in the future,” (Murphy, 2016, para 2) the goal of the Iranian government was to make sure that he and other journalists would become too fearful of arbitrary imprisonment to do so any longer. It is difficult to justify going into a hostile country and writing about things that are wrong with it, knowing that state officials are reading your every word and are poised to take away your freedom indefinitely for reasons even they struggle to explain. This is a very recent example of how authoritarian governments can use their power to clamp down on the press. In this case, whether it was effective in permanently silencing Mr. Rezaian has yet to be seen. But even if he does go back to reporting on Iran, other journalists may be more wary about taking up the task, and that is where the real danger lies.