A Case for Safety and Press Freedom

Dec 20, 2018 · 5 min read
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2018 has been a hard year for journalism.

A revenue crisis driven by the Internet, President Trump’s attacks on a free press, widespread mistrust of traditional media — all these factors make a career in this field today extremely challenging. The consequences of this changing environment are strikingly reflected in a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which found that the number of journalists killed worldwide nearly doubled this year.

Such perilous circumstances are particularly concerning for foreign correspondents, especially freelancers such as myself. We work in an industry that offers little security and report in areas that can be quite unsafe, among people who sometimes mean us harm. Most of us do so because we want to tell the truth about conflict and the people who live in its midst.

Reporting as close to the truth as possible and correcting inaccuracies when they occur are hallmarks of real journalism. Knowingly publishing lies to serve a political purpose is not journalism. It’s propaganda, and people who deal in that kind of information are not journalists. When their lies put others in danger, there should be consequences.

That’s why I’m about to do something that makes me uncomfortable, as someone with a healthy respect for freedom of speech. I’m going to sue two such people, Max Blumenthal and Benjamin Norton, for libel and defamation. I’m not doing this simply because they published lies that hurt my reputation and career, although they did. Unfortunately, the Internet can be an ugly place. I’ve had much worse things said to and about me without resorting to legal measures.

This lawsuit is about something much more important than my feelings. It’s about fighting a coordinated effort to attack, discredit and endanger journalists whose work counters a certain political line. It’s about protecting reporters in dangerous places at a time when most terrorists and war criminals have Twitter accounts. And it’s about pushing back against the forces that would silence anyone who presents inconvenient truths to the public.

The complaint I’m about to file, with the help of a law firm that has taken on the case pro bono, details a long list of politically motivated attacks against myself as well as many other journalists, rescue workers and activists whose work counters Russian and Syrian propaganda. These coordinated attacks frequently put my personal safety at risk by alleging that I am an agent of the U.S. or Israeli governments. In the places I report, such accusations could result in detainment, deportation, arrest or worse. This lawsuit is not meant to pursue a personal vendetta but instead uncover the motives for Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Norton’s participation in a dangerous campaign of disinformation against people whose work threatens Russian and Syrian interests.

The problem with real journalists, from the perspective of autocratic governments like Russia and Syria, is that we report in places they would prefer to operate in without consequence — which is why their defenders spend so much time attacking us. I’ve spent the last seven years partly based in Beirut, Lebanon, from where I’ve covered topics such as the Syrian conflict and the war against ISIS. Beirut is also where my father, the journalist Terry Anderson, was kidnapped and held for six and a half years by a radical Islamist militia that would eventually be absorbed by Hezbollah, the Iran-supported political party and military group that currently controls much of Lebanon’s government and is fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, with Russia’s help.

I’ve always been drawn to write about Hezbollah, partly because it’s a fascinating organization, but also because the group has been widely blamed for my father’s kidnapping — though I believe the truth is more nuanced. While reporting my book The Hostage’s Daughter, I developed multiple sources in Hezbollah and have published stories about the group with outlets including NBC News, Newsweek, The Nation, Foreign Policy, Esquire and VICE.

Despite what happened to my father, I have always tried to report on Hezbollah with as much objectivity and accuracy as possible, but we all make mistakes. The very few times in my career there have been substantive errors in my reporting, I immediately issued corrections, which is standard procedure. And yet, like so many journalists, whether I make mistakes or not, every time I publish a story that counters Russian interests in Syria, I am met with a barrage of insults and accusations on social media — all of which I can handle, as an adult and a professional.

What I cannot handle is having my personal safety and that of other reporters endangered when Mr. Blumenthal, Mr. Norton and their associates accuse us of being spies or government propagandists. I won’t tolerate my contacts being put at risk when those attacks prompt people close to Hezbollah to report me for my “lies” and “invented sources.” I refuse to watch as their targeted campaigns threaten the lives of rescue workers and doctors in Syria, the safety of freelance journalists in Nicaragua and the careers of reporters and academics who dare to investigate their own unsavory associations and ties to Russia. Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Norton will undoubtedly accuse me of using the legal system to silence them and stifle their free speech. I believe it’s worth noting that Mr. Blumenthal has sent legal threats via his lawyer to at least three news outlets that published unflattering material about him — hardly the actions of a champion of free speech.

For my part, I am extremely reluctant to take legal action against someone for the words they use, but we live in a world where an impulsive tweet can shake the very foundations of our society. Journalists are in perilous, uncharted territory. We need to make our own tools, draw our own maps and protect ourselves in any way we can. My lawsuit certainly isn’t about money. If anything financial ever comes from it, I plan to donate all funds to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This is about using the courts to uphold laws governing free speech so reporters can work with the security of knowing there are consequences for putting them in harm’s way.

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