Words of Fire: Independent Journalists who Challenge Dictators, Drug Lords, and Other Enemies of a Free Press

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9780814716052: Words of Fire: Independent Journalists who Challenge Dictators, Drug Lords, and Other Enemies of a Free Press
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If journalism is the first draft of history, then independent journalists are surely its most daring composers.

Along such celebrated and high-profile figures as Christiane Amanpour and Wolf Blitzer, there exists a stratum of journalistsself-employed, working under dire conditions, and with minimal resourceswho often place themselves at ground zero of world events. In this gripping account, Anthony Collings takes us into the world of independent journalists, and the daily challenges they face confronting dictators, hostile military, and narcoterrorists. Unfettered by any ties to those in positions of power, these guerrilla journalists are often the first on a storywhether reporting on corruption in Mexico, organized crime in Russia, or sexual scandal in the Middle Eastand accordingly face the brunt of their subject's wrath.

Collings, who has himself been held captive while on assignment, here focuses less on those nations in which the press is either largely free (such as the U.S. or Western European democracies) or aggressively restricted (as in China), and more on those "battleground countries" where the eventual outcome of the struggle between state and fourth estate remains unclear. Relying on interviews, professional contacts, and his own experiences, Collings explores the dilemmas and strategies of journalists who persevere in the face of war, repressive governments, and criminal aggression, with particular emphasis on the role of the Internet.

At a time when journalism is increasingly a profession under siege, Words of Fire forces into the spotlight a more positive side of the profession, those who pursue journalism not for profit or fame but as a personal crusade.

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From the Publisher:

Author Q&A: Anthony Collings discusses some of the experiences that led him to write WORDS OF FIRE:

Question 1: What kinds of restrictions on the press have you encountered here in the United States?

Answer: In thirty years as a journalist -- twenty of them overseas - I have found the United States to have the least restrictions on the press of any country. But even here the press is not entirely free. The restrictions that do exist come primarily during wartime. Reporters were kept away from the Grenada invasion entirely, were permitted only limited coverage of the Panama incursion, and were kept on a tight leash by the Pentagon during the Gulf War. Some of these restrictions may make sense, in terms of protecting military secrets and American lives, but other restrictions seem to be designed to cover up mistakes or avoid embarrassment. (Pentagon censors objected to one Gulf War story describing U.S. pilots as "giddy" and changed it to "proud.")

Other restrictions on the press here in the U.S. include libel law, copyright and other legal constraints. Lawyers for NBC were reluctant to let me use, on CNN, a videotaped brief submitted to the Supreme Court even though it was a matter of public record, because the tape included scenes from NBC shows. They eventually relented, because I was making "fair use" of copyrighted material, but they tried to pressure me into not using it.

Sometimes there are economic interests behind efforts at press restrictions. At Newsweek I was once asked to do a news story favorable to Ford of Germany because Newsweek planned a special advertising supplement by Ford, but I refused. ABC News spiked a planned investigative piece about alleged child abuse at Disney World. Disney owns ABC, and while ABC denied it, this incident was widely believed by journalists to reflect corporate censorship. But these types of economic pressure are rare.

Question 2: Why did you write this book?

Answer: Having been held at gunpoint, arrested, threatened and put under pressure in other ways by people who wanted to silence me as a journalist, I had always wondered how often this sort of thing goes on, how other journalists react to it, and what effect it has on freedom of the press worldwide. So I decided to write a book about this phenomenon. When I began researching, I assumed I would find a lot of cases of intimidation and suppression of the truth, but I was pleasantly surprised to find many cases of journalists refusing to be silenced. Their defiance impressed me, especially in view of the terrible pressures they come under. I was impressed by people like J. Jesus Blancornelas, the Mexican publisher I interviewed as he recuperated from gunshot wounds after an assassination attempt. His house was surrounded by Federal combat troops protecting him, and he lived in fear for his life, but he was determined to go on publishing the truth about drug corruption.

Question 3: What was the most physically dangerous experience you had as a journalist?

Answer: I was held at gunpoint in Lebanon in May 1981, along with a CNN cameraman, sound technician, and driver. We were in fear for our lives, especially since an Irish print reporter had been murdered in Beirut --his throat cut -- only a few weeks earlier. This was during an international crisis and heightened tension. Syria had installed Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut and Israel had demanded Syria remove them or face bombing. We drove from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley to try to get pictures of the missiles. As we were setting up our tripod for a general panoramic view of the valley, two cars pulled up. Unidentified Syrians and Palestinians with AK-47 assault rifles got out. One of them beat up our driver. The others forced us into the cars and took us to a Syrian command post in the town of Shtaura and locked us in a room. An interrogator who spoke English accused us of being Israeli spies -- and we knew that the punishment for espionage was death.

We tried to explain that we were American journalists working for CNN, but CNN was still a fledgling network then and these people had never heard of it. We were eventually ushered into a Syrian general's office, where we sat around a table. The general angrily denounced us and then said something to a soldier and sent him out of the room. I thought: preparing the firing squad.

The soldier came back with a big round brass tray, and on it were glasses of tea and packs of Marlboros. I didn't know if this was our "last meal" or a sign of hospitality, but I told our crew to watch the general and do whatever he did. The general sipped his tea. We sipped our tea. The general opened his pack of Marlboros. We opened our packs. The general lit a cigarette. All of us -- except the cameraman -- lit a cigarette. I told him: "Light the cigarette." He said: "I don't smoke." I said: "Just do it. Please." He reluctantly lit it and just held it in his fingers. Eventually the mood changed and the general became friendly and let us go.

We were still shaking hours later.

From the Author:

A few of Collings's answers to questions from visitors to Web site:

WHAT KINDS OF RESTRICTIONS ON THE PRESS HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED IN THE U.S.?

In thirty years as a journalist -- twenty of them overseas - I have found the United States to have the least restrictions on the press of any country. But even here the press is not entirely free. The restrictions that do exist come primarily during wartime. . . Some of these restrictions may make sense, in terms of protecting military secrets and American lives, but other restrictions seem to be designed to cover up mistakes or avoid embarrassment. . . Sometimes there are economic interests behind efforts at press restrictions . . . but these types of economic pressure are rare.

WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK?

Having been held at gunpoint, arrested, threatened and put under pressure in other ways by people who wanted to silence me as a journalist, I had always wondered how often this sort of thing goes on, how other journalists react to it, and what effect it has on freedom of the press worldwide. So I decided to write a book about this phenomenon. When I began researching, I assumed I would find a lot of cases of intimidation and suppression of the truth, but I was pleasantly surprised to find many cases of journalists refusing to be silenced. Their defiance impressed me, especially in view of the terrible pressures they come under.

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