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Americans Captured at Iranian Border

Their timing could not have been worse. Three American hikers found themselves in Iranian territory while the country was continuing its clampdown on the international community in response to the deadly post-election protests.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27 were visiting the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya when they were arrested for crossing the Iraqi border into Iran. Shane Bauer is a journalist who has written for The Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Aljazeera.net, and has an article in this month’s Mother Jones magazine.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that all three of the hikers had interests in writing and photography although the reason for this hike was purely sightseeing.

“There is no Lonely Planet Iraqi Kurdistan,” said their friend, Shon Meckfessel, who stayed behind on that day’s hike to recover from a cold. He said the spot they picked to hike was highly recommended by the locals they consulted and they had no idea it would lead them near the border.

The U.S. has stepped in to seek the release of the three, after over a week of just trying to confirm they were in fact in Iranian custody. Since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, Iraq has pleaded on behalf of the United States for the prisoners’ release.

Shane Bauer, the freelance journalist, speaks Arabic and has been based in the Middle East and Northern Africa for six years. You can see a sampling of his work on his webpage.

Photo Credit: AFP

Breaking: North Korea Pardons Euna Lee and Laura Ling

After today’s visit by former president Bill Clinton, the North Korean government has agreed to a “special pardon” for the two journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labor.

As we wrote in yesterday’s update, Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested on the border of China and North Korea and charged with initiating a “politically motivated smear campaign”. It is unclear whether they were arrested on the Chinese side or the North Korean side, or whether their confessions of guilt were real, coerced, or if they ever actually occurred.

The harsh punishment sent down by leader Kim Jongil is widely believed to be an attempt at gaining worldwide attention and perhaps political leverage.

Click here for the New York Times’ update on the story.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Walter Cronkite and Journalistic Courage

By Katie McNish

Since his death on July 17th at age 92, Walter Cronkite has been endlessly memorialized as “the most trusted man in America.” The anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962-1981, Cronkite covered such major events in American history as the Moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. And while archival footage of the former two broadcasts – in which Cronkite echoed the nation’s emotions, steadily reading on while holding back tears – it was his commentary on the latter that set him apart.

Though his comforting on-camera demeanor and reliable nightly presence earned him the moniker “Uncle Walter,” columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times points out that, “what matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront … those in power.”

That courage was apparent during Cronkite’s broadcast one February evening in 1968. His reportage on the Vietnam War to that point had been standard, generally supportive of the U.S. government. But on February 27, having recently returned from a trip to Vietnam covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, he closed his broadcast with an editorial:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He went on to suggest that “the only rational way out [of the war] will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

In 1968, a year long before Fox News, MSNBC, and rest of the plethora of sources of journalistic criticism from all sides of the aisle, Cronkite was one of the first mainstream reporters to speak to truth to power. In a statement revealing the incredible impact of such criticism from a man as universally popular as Cronkite, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Then, in 1972, Cronkite helped to bring the Watergate scandal to the public. The Washington Post was one of the only news sources investigating the issue, and CBS had no fresh reporting of its own, but Cronkite took 14 of his broadcast’s 22 minutes on October 27th to repackage The Post’s coverage (crediting the paper, of course), pointing out the importance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting and the gravity of the corruption. Following this bold move, other networks began to follow suit, helping to bring attention Woodward and Bernstein’s historic work and fueling public outcry over Nixon’s actions.

After his retirement, Cronkite continued to fight for governmental openness to the public through media. For example, hee worked with the Alliance for Better Campaigns on an unsuccessful lobbying effort to have an amendment added to the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 that would have required TV broadcast companies to provide free airtime to Presidential candidates.

As Frank Rich writes, “the real test is how a journalist responds when people in high places are doing low deeds out of camera view and getting away with it.” It was this – bringing the truth about Vietnam, Watergate, political campaigns, etc. to the public when it would have been safer and easier not to -that made Cronkite so trustworthy.

Arrests in Iran Point to More Violence and Secrecy

Being affiliated with a big-name media outlet can add an extra layer of safety for journalist, especially when traveling in unsafe territories where governments aren’t looking for added negative attention. But in Iran, having a name like Newsweek, Getty, or GlobalPost to back you up, won’t keep you out of danger.

Iran isn’t seeking political leverage (as North Korea seems to be doing) or targeting local and freelance journalists where baseless arrests will draw less attention (like Lindhout and Brennan, whose arrests in Somalia have gone virtually unnoticed), so the recent arrests of high profile journalists makes you wonder how bad the stories must be that they are working so hard to keep quiet.

Newsweek’s Tehran correspondent Maziar Bahari has been held in Iran for almost a month with out charge in Iran. The high profile arrested has sparked international attention and as CPJ reports, 100 prominent journalists from 47 different countries (including Ted Koppel, Fareed Zakaria, and Christiane Amanpour) have signed a petition requesting his release.

GlobalPost reporter Iason Athanasiadis was held for three weeks in Tehran. He was reporting on the protests on the ground when he was arrested “in an effort to stifle my on-the-ground reporting and intimidate me,” he said.

Reporters Without Borders announced today that at least eight photojournalists and cameramen have been detained in Iran for unknown reasons. According to the media watchdog, Iran has jailed more bloggers than any other country in the world. They have compiled an extensive list of jailed journalists and the reasons behind their arrests that can be found here.

Reporters Without Borders has also announced the implementation of SOS Presse, a hotline for journalists in danger that is open around the clock and where one of their officials can be immediately reached.

To date, little reason or solid evidence has been given for the arrest of the many journalists, photojournalists and cameramen, and bloggers.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes