Just days before the 10th anniversary of the tragic murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, noted journalist and editor David Remnick spoke at UCLA about the need to protect freedom of expression around the globe and the role this principle played in Pearl's life and death.
Remnick, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author and editor of the New Yorker magazine, was on campus Jan. 30 to deliver the 10th annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture (listen to podcast.). Pearl, who served as the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was kidnapped by terrorists while on assignment in Pakistan and was executed on Feb. 1, 2002.
Pearl's father, Judea Pearl, a UCLA professor emeritus and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which helped organize the lecture with the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and Hillel at UCLA, was on hand at the event and recalled the horrible days, a decade ago, that followed Daniel's Jan. 23 abduction.
"Deep inside, we were fairly confident that Daniel would eventually be released," he told the audience of more than 400 at Korn Convocation Hall. "It was physically impossibly, we thought, that anyone, however cruel, could harm as gentle a soul as he was — a storyteller, a musician, a lover of humanity. On Jan. 30 of that year, he was already facing the unthinkable, and the equations of physics broke down in shame."
The highly publicized murder of Pearl rocked the global community and left a lasting impression on journalists around the world, including Remnick.
"I've rarely in my life felt as honored as I do to be with you here today at the invitation of the Pearls," said Remnick, who began his reporting career in 1982 and has been the New Yorker's editor since 1998. "It's a special and serious moment."
Remnick spoke about the recent 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and about the victims of terror, including Daniel Pearl. He recalled Pearl's talent as a journalist, his tenacity, his curiosity, and the impact his life and death had on his profession.
"As a journalist and as a man, Danny Pearl was everything we wanted to be," Remnick said. But he pointed out that Pearl's death was not an isolated tragedy and that journalists around the world who are dedicated to tackling tough stories, many of which make extremists and governments squirm, face increasing violence and intimidation.
Last year alone, Remnick said, 66 journalists were killed, more than 1,000 were arrested, nearly 2,000 were attacked, 71 were kidnapped, 73 were forcibly exiled from their home countries, and hundreds of bloggers were arrested or imprisoned. Of the 892 journalist that have been killed since 1992, 560 of them were killed by governments that never faced charges or punishment.
The situation is particular problematic in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia, he said.
"Anyone who goes on about the great miracle of contemporary China and fails to mention that freedom of expression is under constant assault should be ashamed," Remnick said. "There's boundless value to unleashing the nation's economic energies and raising the poor to the middle classes — there's no doubt about that — but life without liberty, without expression, without access to truth, without access to fact, is a famished life.
"The machinery of Chinese oppression, the codes of restriction, thousands of technocratic censors sitting in front of computer screens monitoring the Internet and blocking it, the double-speak of the official press — all of it is a landscape familiar to readers of '1984' and 'Animal Farm.' "
Remnick also spoke of the Arab Spring and the voices that have emerged from that phenomenon. But he cautioned that that the power of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the Egyptian legislature, far outweighs that of the youth movement seen in Tahrir Square and that arrests, detentions and intimidation are a reality. The current threat of suppression of information is not unlike that experienced under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he said.
"As ever, the press picture is reflective of the whole," Remnick said. "In Egypt today, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the country since Mubarak's ouster, has issued a directive to television stations and all publications that they must receive permission before broadcasting or writing anything about the armed forces."
Despite this, he said, an independent Egyptian media center is beginning to take shape, and its founders are enjoying some early success. From their office in downtown Cairo, the group advocates for citizen journalism and "seeks legal reform to redraw the lines of journalism and media in an effort to build a democratic society and social and religious freedoms," said Remnick.
Remnick shared further examples of threats to freedom of expression, in Turkey; Russia, where he spent the earlier part of his journalistic career; and India, where he recently attended the Jaipur Literary Festival, an event that welcomed writers from the U.S., Britain and Southeast Asia but which had once banned India's most famous writer, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie's controversial book "The Satanic Verses," which is still banned in India, sparked outrage among some Muslims and led to death threats against the author from Muslim extremists following its release in 1988.
Remnick also expressed concern over what he said appears to be declining public support for free speech in Israel. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, indicates that one in three Israelis believe there is currently too much free speech in the country. The poll also suggests that anti-democratic tendencies and intolerance against those who criticize Israel's government are also rising. These trends may in time affect the survival of media sources whose politics and policies run counter to general public opinion, he said.
Although much of Remnick's speech focused on regions far from America, he did say that the U.S. record on free expression also deserves a critical look, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war on terror.
"Bush, Cheney and the rest of his administration practiced ... the most anti-press, anti-fact, anti-truth government since the days of Richard Nixon," he said. "Its disdain for the proper channels of intelligence and information, its disdain for dissent, its constant attacks on the editors of the New York Times, on [Seymour] 'Sy' Hersh of the New Yorker, on any number of reporters and editors honestly trying to portray excruciating conflict between security and personal liberty, went on and on."
He did say, however, that the relationship between the Obama administration and the press is "less fraught."
In closing, Remnick said: "What a newspaper must do in print, in pixels, is exert pressure on power: pressure on the president, pressure on the CIA and the Pentagon, pressure on the school board and on political candidates, and on the military, pressure on all of us and all public institutions ... Without that pressure, a newspaper or a website or a magazine or television station is merely the sum total of its entertainment and its day-to-day usefulness, and it's nothing at all."