Pakistani immigration officials had other plans. They pulled Butler aside and informed him he was on an Interior Ministry “stop list.” Without explanation or a chance to appeal, Butler was forced onto a return flight to Washington, which he spent in a strange sort of legal limbo. The flight crew remained in possession of his passport and boarding pass.
This treatment, as appalling as it was, was not nearly as terrible as that endured by our Africa program coordinator, Angela Quintal, and our representative Muthoki Mumo, who were detained last November while on a CPJ mission to Tanzania. Quintal and Mumo were taken from their hotel room in Dar es Salaam by intelligence agents who brought them to a secret location where they interrogated them, confiscated their electronic devices and roughed up Mumo.
I’ve spent more than 20 years at CPJ, the last 12 as executive director. In that time, no one from our staff had ever been detained while traveling on CPJ business. Now it’s happened twice in the past year. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
CPJ, which defends the rights of journalists around the world to report the news without fear of reprisal, is based in the United States and employs U.S. citizens as well as nationals of many other countries. We consider ourselves to be a part of international civil society — the network of advocacy groups, media and independent institutions that foster the free flow of information and defend basic rights. We often have an adversarial relationship with the U.S. government, because we are constantly pushing it to do more to stand up for press freedom. But we have always operated under the assumption that, if we get into trouble, the powers-that-be in Washington will have our backs.
But that’s not true anymore. President Trump’s rhetoric and actions are making it more difficult and dangerous for us to do our critical work. His characterization of journalists as “enemies of the people”; his fulminations against “fake news”; his indifference to the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi (which he now refers to as an “event”); and his apparent willingness to allow the arrest of a New York Times correspondent in Egypt — all of these behaviors and actions empower autocratic leaders from the around the world who are arresting and jailing journalists in record numbers.
When Trump holds news conferences with repressive foreign leaders — from Vladimir Putin of Russia to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil — they often joke about their terrible treatment by the press. Trump apparently thinks this is amusing, but I can tell you it has real-world consequences. In July, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan met with Trump and was asked about Pakistan’s terrible press freedom record. “There’s no way you’re treated worse than I am,” quipped Trump, as both men chuckled.
A few days later, I got an email from a Pakistani journalist complaining that “Imran Khan has returned all puffed up from his meeting with President Trump & is cracking down with greater ferocity on political opponents and media.”
I will do anything to defend my staff, but the issue here is much larger. Like many U.S.-based international organizations, we use our privileged position to fight for essential principles which we believe are in the best interest of the United States and the international community. If journalists around the world are not able to report the news, how will Americans and others be informed about global events? Without independent journalism, disagreements are more likely to become conflicts, fueling instability. Global hot spots will go unnoticed; humanitarian disasters will be unobserved.
We’ve responded forcefully to Butler’s expulsion from Pakistan. We’ve demanded an explanation from the Pakistani authorities and written to the Pakistani ambassador to request a meeting. We reached out to the State Department, and we were pleased that they expressed concern.
But that’s not enough. While there are many people at all levels of the State Department who support our work and share our values, they don’t have the backing of the president, and governments around the world know this. The State Department has also been gutted; many posts remain open, and there isn’t even a U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
Given this state of affairs, we are asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make clear to Pakistani authorities that the treatment of Butler was unacceptable and that support for press freedom and the rights of journalists is an essential U.S. value. Without such an expression of support, our staff will continue to be unsafe, journalists will be vulnerable and repressive governments around the world will have growing power to censor the news and to determine what we know.