At the NoMad Hotel Library Bar, Howard Chua-Eoan talks about press freedom and tinpot dictators with colleagues from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Overseas Press Club.
The restaurant of the NoMad Hotel on Broadway and 28th Street has the nouveau lush feel of the nouveau flush of contemporary New York, designed to impress but restrained by a slightly self-conscious decorum. The glass-ceilinged, airy main room, with its white-cloth tables, gold-brocade upholstery and mauve walls, is closed in on one side by the semi-privacy of a perimeter dining area (with opulent fireplace) and on the other by a popular, teaky bar that is impossibly jammed in the evenings. To the side of the bar is a gentlemanly two-level library where people mostly drink not read, absorbing the dimly lit elegance and perhaps postponing thoughts of how much they are spending. I have to admit it was an odd setting to discuss the perils faced by reporters around the world but a table for three was available for lunch and, as a retired journalist, I could beg the indulgence of my appetite and, since I was footing the bill, take responsibility for any inappropriateness. The food is good.
My dining companions were Joel Simon, the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), whose office was a couple of blocks away from the hotel, and Michael Serrill, an editor of Bloomberg news who is a former colleague at TIME and the President of the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC). I had organized the lunch at Michael’s request and in my capacity as chairman of the OPC’s Freedom of the Press committee to pick Joel’s mind about what projects our two organizations could work together on. Everyone ate frugally—avoiding the extravagance of NoMad’s signature roast chicken for two but opting for the simpler pleasures of its other specialty: butter-glazed radishes. A butternut squash and morcilla sausage entrée was delicious as were the scallops. As a conscientious bon vivant—and the only one without a day job at the table—I ordered a glass of SP68, a lovely white blended from a number of Sicilian varietals by the amazing Arianna Occhipinti. But just one glass.
Mike and Joel had a lot in common: they had both cut their teeth reporting on Latin America. Michael worked for Bloomberg; Joel’s CPJ counts outgoing Mayor Bloomberg as a big benefactor. I was trying to figure on how to bring the Freedom of the Press committee into the 21st Century instead of using the depth and prestige of the OPC—which turns 75 years old next year—to write letters to dictators that few bother to read in an age of electronic media. Joel had several good suggestions, and I am bringing them back to the board.
Over lunch, we lamented the troubles journalists faced in Russia and how seemingly impervious Vladimir Putin was to criticism. Joel reminded us of the execrable record on press freedom in Turkey, a country most Americans had probably perceived as perfectly enlightened until the gaseous crackdown on protests in the spring. And then, of course, there was the ongoing blood-letting in Syria. The civilian toll is so horrendous that it is almost impolite to raise the issue of journalistic safety. But there are still unresolved kidnappings of journalists in that country. I am astounded by how many of those there are and, as someone whose career once depended on making things public, depressed by how silence is required to deal with the complications of each disappearance. Too many different groups with too many agendas are involved—from al-Qaeda franchisees to the Syrian government—for shouting to be of any strategic value. Even now, even without saying anything about a specific incident, I feel I have said too much.
As I bid Michael and Joel farewell, I was reminded of the silence I kept for a long time about a case that came to me while I was dressed in my pajamas. Emergencies are never constrained by decorum or a sense of appropriate timing. The phone call came on a weekend morning in March 2007. I was lazing in bed. It was Michael Elliott, the editor of TIME’s International editions. He said our Africa bureau chief Alex Perry had been arrested by police in Zimbabwe a couple of days before. Alex had managed to get information to Michael, who called me to help find a way to free him.
The security forces in Zimbabwe are so thuggish that South African commandos are afraid of crossing them.
A few things came to my mind immediately. First, the security forces in Zimbabwe are so thuggish that South African commandos, some of the toughest in the business, are afraid of crossing them; secondly, Zimbabwe is very far away and how the hell was I going to get him out of there when I knew no one in the country; and finally, why didn’t anyone tell me—the News Director of TIME–that Alex was going into Zimbabwe in the first place?
The answer to the last was probably because I would have raised so many questions about safety that he wouldn’t have gone in at the time the editors deemed right. So I put aside my ego—with great difficulty—and, while sitting in my pajamas, started making phone calls. Since Alex is a British subject, I made contact with the British High Commission—that is the U.K. embassy—in Zimbabwe. Surprisingly, I got through to someone who suggested I call a lawyer and helpfully gave me a name.
That, I discovered, produced both good and bad news. Bad news because the lawyer was in Harare the capital and good news because Alex was arrested in the countryside, close to Bulawayo, a large city but relatively far away from the centralized thuggishness of the government of Robert Mugabe, the long-lived, recalcitrant autocrat of that once prosperous nation. So, I had to find another lawyer, but quietly, for fear of speeding the secret police from the capital on their way. I was told to presume they already were.
The police threatened to beat him, then threw him in a cell and put him through bureaucratic hoops.
Alex had flown into Bulawayo as a tourist and then headed out to talk to sources in the mining town of West Nicholson. One of the people he interviewed, however, outed him as a journalist to the local police. Plainclothesmen drove him to the town of Gwanda where the police, fearsome in their helplessness at the bottom of the security hierarchy, interrogated him over and over, threatened to beat him, then threw him in a cell and put him through menacing bureaucratic hoops. They said he faced two years in prison if found guilty of working as an unaccredited journalist.
I was not aware of Alex’s privations in Gwanda. I was still trying to get a lawyer in the Bulawayo. Fortunately, the Harare barrister had a referral for me—and to my surprise, the man said he would take up Alex’s case. Unfortunately, because of Zimbabwe’s unceasing economic crises, he didn’t have gas to drive to Gwanda and needed quite a lot of cash in case he needed to pay Alex’s fine. I got back to my phone directory and called Simon Robinson, who used to be TIME’s South Africa correspondent but had moved on to work for Reuters.
Simon did not make me feel better when he said that Zimbabwe’s secret police liked to pluck off the fingernails of the people they interrogated. But, thankfully, he put me in touch with a well-off couple in the Bulawayo area who were known to despise Mugabe and potentially able to help. The regime is such that, to this day, I dare not reveal their identities. I called and they responded enthusiastically, contacted the lawyer, provided him with gas and cash. They became my sources for how the case was proceeding. The lawyer drove to Gwanda in the middle of the night, knocked on the door of the local judge and the police department, annoying them enough to set up a hearing for the first thing in the morning, which would be Monday.
The hearing seemed to be the easiest part, taking only 10 minutes and resulting in Alex pleading guilty and paying a fine of 100 Zimbabwean dollars (barely a cent). And then he jumped into his rental car and drove to the border. My new-found friends in Bulawayo would tell me that an hour later, officials arrived from Harare, asking what happened to the foreigner who had been arrested for committing journalism.
I only remember being in my pajamas throughout the weekend. It seemed an odd outfit to be wearing while dealing with the case of a reporter detained in a faraway African country. But, in my job, I learned to deal with these things whenever they arose. Though I’d rather discuss them over a meal at the NoMad hotel.