When a forum on free speech faces realities of censorship

Coming into an event to talk about freedom of speech, sponsored by a ‘citadel of free speech,’ one might expect to have an open and honest conversation about..free speech.

But in reality, fear of persecution for panelists or their families is sometimes too strong a factor in how open people want to be.

Each month I moderate a free discussion on global affairs at a local pub, The Happy Dog. The event is sponsored by The City Club of Cleveland and a cadre of other globally-minded organizations in Northeast Ohio. We’ve talked about the refugee crisis and the future of Angela Merkel, we’ve talked about the origins of ISIS, we’ve even talked about foreign policy challenges for President Donald Trump and showed up on C-SPAN.

But our conversation in April 2017 on free speech and censorship in Turkey did not show up on C-SPAN, Facebook Live, or anywhere else.

Our panelists included a former Turkish judge, and a former Turkish official fired in a consolidation of support by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who were to talk about realities in Turkey. What was Turkey like before the coup attempt, before the crackdown on journalists and protesters, before now? Why does it seem Turkey at one point was headed toward the constitutional liberalism of Europe, and even partnership with the E.U., but now seems clearly authoritarian? What is the reality for individuals who don’t agree with Erdoğan, and what does that mean for their security?

The panelists agreed to speak at the event, but demurred at the conversation being recorded, or their names or images publicized. They feared retribution against their families and friends back in Turkey. They feared that speaking openly in a forum on free speech in a Cleveland pub would bring harm and persecution back home.

We had our conversation, and those present could enjoy it, but we agreed not to share details of the event as much and as freely as normal.

In my reporting about Egypt a year after the initial uprising that led to the fall of Mubarak I faced many people with the same worry that I saw in the panelists in Cleveland. Two tables of Egyptian expats in Zurich requested anonymity when we talked about the future of their country. A man at a Coptic church near Zurich initially agreed to speak to me on the record, but later wanted his name shielded because he had openly said in the interview he worried for his family…which in turn could attract something to worry about. (I agreed to shield his last name after-the-fact.)

And all around the world there is genuine persecution, including imprisonment and death, for the exercising of freedom of expression. But that direct and brutal imposition of censorship is compounded by the fear that causes people to self-censor out of a sense of self-preservation.

This is a reality of the internet that must not be forgotten, that a simple web search of a name might bring attention to someone speaking thousands of miles from a regime looking to suppress an opposition.

Journalists like me are at their core agents of free speech. Ideally, journalists work to promote and share the perspectives and realities of all segments of society. But it’s also sometimes a balance of protecting sources, protecting individuals, while letting the greater public know what’s going-on. I’m not a proponent of excessively allowing anonymity, and indeed think it should be used sparingly.

But sometimes granting that anonymity allows more information about the bigger reality to come through.

One of the panelists shared the work of Advocates of Silenced Turkey. Find them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/silencedturkey 

“…as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” – Thomas Jefferson


Listening to Our Land: a conversation about community policing

The best way to find out how people think about certain things is to talk to them, and listen. That may seem self-evident, especially when coming from a journalist, but it’s not.  One of the casualties of the technology race to social media is the ability to read someone’s presentation of themselves and believe you now know their perspective.  You don’t. Skimming a Twitter feed or Facebook page gives you nothing more than a snapshot of a moment in that person’s life.  If you want to better understand a person’s perspective, you need to connect in a different way.

I don’t want to move, it ain’t about moving.  It’s about change—trying to change it, so I won’t be a drive-by incident.

Ms. Kim Benefield in the ‘Our Land’ radio special

Cleveland has been mentioned among cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, in the national soul-searching over police-community relations.  Heated debates and efforts toward police reform have been spurred by cases like the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who had a pellet gun; the death in police custody of Tanisha Anderson who was suffering from mental illness; and the verdict of Patrolman Michael Brelo for firing the final 15 of 137 shots fired by police at a car after a high-speed chase; among others.

The Department of Justice, separately, found Cleveland police in the past to have exhibited a pattern or practice of excessive use of force, leading to a consent decree dictating reforms.  The mayor has mentioned that the Division of Police was already modifying its procedures before the agreement, so the process will now have added elements and oversight.

Screenshot of TV footage of police on E. 4th in Cleveland, following the Brelo verdict.
Screenshot of TV footage of police on E. 4th in Cleveland, following the Brelo verdict.

Cleveland had seen a number of protests, legal actions, rallies, funerals, and memorials in the wake of the cases mentioned above, and many that I didn’t mention.  By-and-large the gatherings were always peaceful–emotional and passionate, but largely peaceful.  Local and state officials had launched various listening tours to talk to the public about community-police relations, which also drew passionate testimony, but I didn’t feel satisfied as a journalist.  I had heard many soundbites, but I hadn’t often been able to listen to various stakeholders at-length.  I began to wonder if there was a way to speak about many of the cases, issues, concerns, hopes, and fears that Clevelanders were feeling, while still giving a space to explore some of those issues more deeply than to which we’re accustomed.

This is how the Our Land series was born: through a desire to listen longer to more people, all kinds of people, about their views on Cleveland’s police, neighborhoods, and future.

In any project you need to narrow your focus, and that’s what I did with my editors.  Our public radio DNA naturally pushes us toward bigger picture projects, with a community service focus.  Because interviews about police can go in so many directions–and they did–it was important to have a common starting point for each interview.  We settled on two questions: what should ‘community policing’ look like in your view, and how far are we from that ideal?

As the series took off, starting in the Cudell neighborhood where Tamir Rice was shot, continuing to the police commander who oversees community policing, and ending up in a public housing development with many, many perspectives, the project was clearly no longer just about community policing.  From the very first interviews, I heard concerns about community-police relations, sure, but also about neighborhood cohesion, economic development, gangs, perceptions of an ineffectual political process, and more.  A perceived uptick in violent crime, including a string of shootings which led to the deaths of a number of children, all influenced the series’ tone.


Cleveland is sometimes called “The Land” or various nicknames playing off “land,” like “Believeland.”  So in naming the series I wanted to emphasize a sense of community, first and foremost.  There are many opinions, many perspectives, but Clevelanders are all stakeholders in the future of Cleveland–our land.

The series included video elements, occupied an episode of The Sound of Ideas call-in show, and connected the views of many kinds of Clevelanders with each other.  I might hear one thing from a writer, and pose the question to a police commander, or ask a local pastor to comment on it all.  And throughout the process the conversations were authentic, respectful, and I believe incredibly relevant and valuable.


In my work as a journalist I’ve found ‘listening’ to be one of the most powerful tools in my toolbox.  Some journalists think they need to perfect the art of interrogation and accusatory questioning to gather powerful news material.  Those skills have a place.

But so many people I have encountered in various states of distress, or joy, or business, or whatever, just want to be listened to, understood, and have their perspective fairly and accurately conveyed.  It may sound like a given, but it’s not as present in modern journalism as it should be.  The times we are in with respect to the issue of community-police relations and many others, demand that we up our games.  As journalists we need to strive toward careful reporting and authentic depictions of our communities today.  And as readers, listeners, and viewers, we must demand higher quality journalism.

We cannot have a dialogue if we instantly turn-off or tune-out views that oppose ours.  I hope this series accomplishes at least that–that you don’t want to tune out if you hear something you don’t like.  Maybe you want to keep listening, to better understand where that person is coming from.  And maybe with that understanding, the path forward might be even a tiny bit easier.


Please consider listening to the series, or downloading on iTunes.

Scooter pt. 2: A rough week on public transportation

That week began with long walks up and down snowy hills, and it ended with two men wanting to fight.  That week began with cold, relentlessly snowy days, and it ended with me reeling in memories of other public transit experiences I’ve had in my life.  I touched on some of those feelings in Scooter pt.1, but that week–that week was something else.

Before we discuss that week, I have to provide a kind of counterbalance to what can be seen as pure negativity about Cleveland’s public transportation reality.  Many days, the buses run more or less as they should.  Many days I arrive at work, and arrive back home relatively on schedule.  Many days there is nothing out of the ordinary to report, although there is plenty that is out of the ordinary, like the people.

There was the man who stepped onto the Healthline holding doughnuts and speaking on the telephone.  He looked toward the front of the bus, saw a Muslim man with prayer beads, and shouted, “As-Salaam-Alaikum” or peace be upon you.  The man replied, as expected, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.”  The man on the phone then spoke loudly into the phone something to the effect of, “…and if he messes with me I’ll **** him up.”  Peace.

There were the two men who knew each other from prison, or from common friends who did time. They spoke about being at the same correctional facility, talked about inmates who were serving a long time, and talked about certain guards. “You don’t want to **** with that guy.”

There was the man with a bag of candy bars.  He had boxes of candy bars, in bags, selling them 2/$1.  There was no organization for which he was selling.  There was no pitch to help kids, or softball teams, or whatever.  Just a man with candy.  And he made some money.

The eclectic mix of passengers does make public transit interesting, and as a journalist it lets me hear what people are worried about.  These can lead to further reporting later, and I can help address some issues overheard on the bus.  My point: there are positives to riding public transit.  Which brings us to that week..


When the weather turns bad in Cleveland, the public transit system suffers. Bus and train delays are regular.  And on this point, Cleveland is not alone–even the Swiss had frozen rail switches and snapped overhead power lines every once in a while.  But the distances covered by Cleveland’s transit system cause difficulty for commuters like me.  If one connection is missed, sometimes there won’t be another connection for an hour.

The Healthline is a bus system that runs along a major Cleveland thoroughfare, Euclid Ave.  It goes from downtown to East Cleveland, and it’s supposed to run every 6-10 minutes.  After my shift I have two possible Healthlines to catch to make it to my transfer bus on time…if all are running as they should.  If I miss my transfer, I can wait an hour, or walk 40 minutes up a relatively steep hill.  If the Healthline doesn’t come, I can take a train, and then walk the 40 minutes.  So during that week…

Feb 4: From 6:45 pm until 7:20 pm there was no Eastbound Healthline along Euclid.  I began at 14th/Euclid, and walked to Tower City to catch a train, and didn’t see any Healthline along the way.  This made me miss my connection…and had to walk.

Feb 5: From 6:45 pm until 7:05 pm there was one full Eastbound Healthline at 14th/Euclid. There were four Westbound Healthlines. When I arrived at my transfer stop, there were now three Eastbound Healthlines all bunched together, two of them were empty. My connection left just before the Healthline pulled up…and I had to walk.

Feb 7: The Healthline ran as expected. But from 7:10 pm, there was no connection (scheduled at about 7:20)…I had to walk, and didn’t see the bus along my way.

Feb 9: My transfer bus broke down.  The replacement was spotted about 50 minutes later.

Feb 11: Two passengers on the Healthline began to yell, then stood to fight, apparently because someone touched someone else’s bag?  One man yelled, “That’s some penitentiary **** there, I done that.” Other passengers separated them.  The driver maneuvered through intersections before stopping safely at a stop, and got out to call police.  One of the men disengaged, so no call was needed.  The remaining belligerent continued to yell even though the other guy was gone.  He then put on his music, loud, and aggressively banged his head to something similar to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.  You know, happy music.

cedar hill-winter

Things happen.  Nothing’s perfect. Most days are not bad days on public transportation.  But I’ve experienced a lot in my year+ of commuting by bus/rail to work, including fights, a purse snatching, drunk teens, and a lot of walking.

I still ride, and I am still a proponent of public transit.  But I look forward to warmer weather, and switching to two wheels, and taking a few variables out of the commute.