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Journalism at risk

Op-Ed

Arrests such as that of Dorothy Parvaz, who was covering the unrest in Syria, have a chilling effect.

May 24, 2011|By Kim Barker

The phone call came in the middle of the night last month, when my brother Todd and I were visiting our father in a suburb of Portland, Ore. Todd's fiancee, Dorothy Parvaz — also my good friend and former colleague — was missing. An editor from Al Jazeera English, where she works, told Todd that no one had heard from her in 24 hours, not since she left Qatar to report on the violence in Syria.

As a female war correspondent whose friends had been kidnapped by the Taliban, I figured I was ideally suited to handle such crises. But I wasn't. With that call, my family became part of a horrible club I had never thought about before: The people left behind. There are at least 145 other clusters of families and loved ones of journalists detained around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' most recent numbers.

My family holed up that first weekend. We didn't tell anyone. We were told "quiet diplomacy" was the best hope of resolving this. We waited for Todd's phone to ring with any news.

That Monday morning — the day after Osama bin Laden's death was announced — Al Jazeera English reported publicly that Dorothy was missing. I called her closest friends in Seattle, some of whom had already heard. We called in favors. We heard conflicting advice. We tried to use our accumulated knowledge and instincts as reporters to figure out what could be happening and to get media attention, difficult with the world riveted on Pakistan.

Todd went to Vancouver to be with Dorothy's father, Fred. I flew home to New York. Dorothy's former colleagues and friends from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where she had worked for almost 10 years, improvised a media campaign. From around the world, friends and journalist groups stepped up. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English pressed for her release. With no idea what might work, we pushed every button we could think to push.

Some efforts felt absurd. We tweeted, asking people to follow @FreeDorothy. We posted messages on Facebook telling people to "like" the page Free Dorothy Parvaz. We sent emails to Dorothy, missives into the ether.

At some point, Syrian authorities said they had deported Dorothy to Iran — she holds Iranian citizenship along with her U.S. and Canadian citizenships — on May 1. Later, we would learn that before deporting her, the Syrians had held Dorothy in a prison, where her time was punctuated by the screams of men being tortured.

We feared the worst in Iran — that she would get in trouble for her past coverage of the Iranian regime, that she would become a pawn in a global power struggle. We worried that she would enter the limbo of freelance journalist Shane Bauer and his friend Joshua Fattal, arrested in 2009 while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.

At least Dorothy had the support of the international journalism community and her employer. What's happened so far this year — with many journalists detained, injured and even killed — is a potent reminder of what's happened to journalism in the last few years. The world is a more dangerous place. And as major news organizations have scaled back overseas coverage, freelancers have filled the void.

This has meant that journalists with very little institutional backing are out there trying to tell the stories of the world, mostly on the cheap. South African photographer Anton Hammerl, shot dead in Libya in early April, was a freelancer. Bauer is a freelancer. No large media organization is pushing for his release.

Lacking facts about Dorothy, we conjured up worst-case scenarios. I bolted awake at 4 a.m. daily. I sent emails. I planned, hunted for crumbs, reported the story, tried to tell the world. Doing something, anything, seemed better than sitting still.

I tried to write Dorothy's story, but it was difficult. Writing made the vanishing real, made me have to think about her more than I already had. Whenever I saw my brother on TV, pleading for her release, something inside cracked.

One morning inside a bank, I heard the background music and started to cry. It was the song "Under Pressure" by Queen, part of our soundtrack during a newspaper strike in Seattle.

For days, Iran didn't even admit to having her. And then shockingly, on May 18, after 19 days of detention, Dorothy was released. She called my brother from her cellphone once she cleared customs in Doha, Qatar. That same day, four journalists detained in Libya for six weeks — all freelancers — were released. But dozens of other journalists went to sleep that night still imprisoned. 

We don't know why Dorothy was freed, which magic button was pushed. But we now know what it's like to be left behind. On Wednesday, I finally made a call I had been putting off — to Cindy Hickey, Shane Bauer's mother. She had offered to talk to me the week before, but I had been too overwhelmed.

I asked Hickey how she could possibly cope for 21 months, talking only twice on the phone to her son, for a total of six minutes. How did she handle holidays? Her job? His birthday? She said the family ignored holidays. That she had closed her business more than a year ago. That she writes to her son almost every day, knowing that he probably never gets the letters. That on his 28th birthday, she made Shane a video of riding a horse, because they used to ride together. And then she sent it off again, into the ether, knowing it would probably never arrive.

Kim Barker, a reporter for ProPublica, is the author of "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

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