The UW-Madison community is still recovering from the shock of UW alum Anna Therese Day’s recent arrest in Bahrain. Day and her crew were in Bahrain over the weekend, covering the anniversary of the Gulf nation’s Shia-led uprising in 2011. The four American journalists were detained Sunday on allegations that they had participated in attacks against police officers and falsely claimed to be tourists. As more information filtered out, international media also reported that Bahrain authorities accused the journalists of participating in the new rash of protests that they had been covering.
On Tuesday morning, NBC quoted the journalists’ lawyer as saying that Day and her crew had been formally charged, but then released without travel restrictions. CNN also said the journalists were on their way to the airport. International news organizations continued to cover the incident as it unfolded.
— Nico Savidge (@NSavidge) February 16, 2016
A graduate of the political science department at UW-Madison, Day has made a name for herself as a respected freelance journalist. She has worked with major news outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera English, and The New York Times. She is also a co-founder of the Frontline Freelance Register, an organization that fights for the safety of freelance journalists around the world.
The arrest of Day and her crewmembers, who have not been publicly named, provides an important opportunity to examine the dangers that journalists face when they cover stories in politically tense regions. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, officials in Bahrain have often conflated the journalistic act of covering local uprisings with the political act of participating in these protests. Reporters without Borders also says that media freedom is constantly under attack in the Gulf nation, with photographers, correspondents and online journalists constantly being arrested and even tortured for their work.
Day’s experience has the potential to shine some light on these issues. Yet, her incident also has the potential to illuminate something a bit messier, something that journalists and scholars need to address more often. The sad fact is that most of the journalists who have been persecuted in Bahrain over the past few years are not westerners like Day. Instead, they tend to be local to Bahrain or the Middle Eastern region, and thus more vulnerable to oppression.
Take, for example, the case of Ahmed al-Fardan, a photojournalist who is currently serving a three-month prison sentence in Bahrain for taking pictures of a protest. Like Day and her crew, al-Fardan was accused of participating in the protests he was trying to cover. Unlike Day and her crew, al-Fardan is still in prison.
Or what about Ahmed Radhi, a freelance journalist arrested for criticizing Bahrain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia? He’s been in prison for several months now, on terrorism charges. What’s more, he’s told the Bahrain Human Rights Center that security forces tortured him in order to get him to confess to the heavy “anti-state” charges brought against him.
Why aren’t the CNN’s and the BBC’s and the Al Jazeera’s of the world telling us more about these local journalists, who suffer just as much (if not more) than foreign correspondents? Put another way, what responsibility do Western news outlets have when it comes to informing the world about the plight of journalists who aren’t necessarily from the “West?”
The tendency in mainstream, Western news organizations is to give exposure to communities with whom Western news audiences can more easily “relate.” In the context of international reporting, this “relatability” is often subtly racialized and regionalized. We saw this in the overwhelming coverage of the Paris attacks in late 2015, for example, as well as in the notable silence when similar attacks occurred in Beirut and Nairobi right around the same time. We’re seeing it again in the coverage of Day’s arrest and subsequent release.
Though there is an understandable comfort in familiarity, one media ethicist asserts that in a globalized world, the media can do much more than feed us familiar images of ourselves. In his 2013 contribution to Stephen J.A. Ward’s book on global media ethics, scholar Nick Couldry argues that global media do not resolve or reduce the disagreements and diversity that define the current age. Instead, global media can bring these differences into view, inspiring a more important set of questions. As Couldry puts it, how do we “live sustainably together through media,” despite our differences?
If Western news outlets were to approach their coverage of Day’s arrest from this perspective, they would necessarily show more interest in the ongoing persecution of local journalists in Bahrain. On one level, these journalists’ detention serves to expose Bahrain officials’ refusal to live sustainably with differences in their own nation. Since the 2011 uprisings, Bahrain officials have cracked down on dissenters with oppositional perspectives, refusing to create a space in which multiple viewpoints can coexist.
On another level, the continued detention of local reporters in Bahrain shows that there are huge disparities among the world’s journalists, disparities that need to be better understood. Visiting correspondents may have different agendas than local journalists, for example. On top of that, local journalists must deal with working conditions that are inherently riskier than those of Western reporters. In an increasingly interconnected world, these distinctions should be of interest to Western news organizations and their audiences. And it’s the news outlets’ job to bring these issues into the light.
There is more to the story of this recent arrest than the figure of the young American freelancer who made it home. Courageous and brilliant, Day’s own work has repeatedly pointed to the nuances of foreign reporting as well, encouraging more dialogue on the dangers that journalists face. News organizations and journalism scholars need to treat Day’s experience as a larger opportunity to talk about the people who haven’t yet been released — the people who may never be released at all.