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Panel 4

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Can the Media Cover Jihadists and Islamists Without Fear or Favor?


  • Dexter FilkinsThe New Yorker staff writer; Pulitzer-Prize winner and recipient of two George Polk Awards
  • Jamie Dettmer, journalist and broadcaster for The Daily Beast and Voice of America, who has reported from inside Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey
  • Nazila Fathi, former Iranian correspondent for The New York Times, who was forced to flee the country in 2009 during the height of the Green Revolution
  • Moderator: Clifford D. May, President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

The panel discussion began with a tribute to Steven Sotloff, an American journalist and one-time FDD visiting fellow who was kidnapped in Syria and held by the Islamic State for more than a year before being brutally beheaded in September 2014.

FDD President Clifford D. May lauded Steven as “an insightful and brave journalist” who felt compelled to travel to warzones like Yemen and Libya because he “wanted to give voice to the victims.” The slain journalist’s mother, Shirley, told the audience about her son’s passion for his work, his “warm heart, inclusive spirit and unbounded generosity.” His father, Arthur, praised FDD for helping the family set up meetings with White House officials, members of Congress and foreign governments during the year in which there was a media blackout over his son’s fate. Since his murder, Steven’s family established the 2Lives Foundation to continue his legacy by supporting freelance war reporters and their families.

The tribute led into a discussion with a number of seasoned, distinguished journalists over the changing nature of reporting from warzones and countries with prohibitive restrictions on free expression, like Iran.

  •  May: As a New York Times foreign correspondent several decades ago, “never did I think anyone wanted to kill me.” Rather, even the most hardened extremists viewed journalists as valuable conduits for telling their story to the world. The 2002 kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan changed everything.
  •  Dettmer: “We have become targets. We have become the bull’s-eye.” Reporters cannot trust anyone anymore – not fixers, drivers or translators. The U.S. government should be far more outspoken about press freedom – instead, the Obama administration appears to view captive journalist as “irritants.” Still, it is a journalist’s professional obligation to do whatever possible to conduct his or her work: “If you can’t get out and file, you’ve failed in your mission.”
  •  Filkins: Until about 15 years ago, reporters could go virtually anywhere in the world. “If you looked like an American, they left you alone.” Today, journalists face far more danger in Pakistan, where “Americans are seen as piles of money” and therefore prime targets for kidnapping.
  • Fathi recalled leaving Iran after her home was surrounded by four cars of regime security officers. A day after her departure, a warrant was issued for her arrest. The continuing threat to journalists in Iran is exemplified by Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, an Iranian-American reporter imprisoned in the Islamic Republic since July. Jason “never wrote anything critical of the regime,” but his whereabouts and fate remain unknown. “I don’t know what would have happened to me as a journalist if I had not left Iran.”