Who will tell their stories?
It was a question that dawned on Philip Eubanks ’06 as he visited refugee camps spread out across Zahlé, Lebanon, at the height of the Syrian Civil War.
He was working as a development officer with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency dedicated to giving pastoral and humanitarian support to Northeast Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and India. At that time, the organization was helping provide aid to Syrian and Palestinian refugees at local schools and hospitals.
“I’ll never forget seeing a sign over the door of one of the medical clinics. In Arabic, it said, ‘Religion is for God. This clinic is for everyone,’” Eubanks recalls. “The nuns there were serving Iraqi refugees, Syrian refugees, Lebanese poor, and members of Hezbollah. It was this place where critical care came first.
“Seeing aid in action, I had this epiphany—if no one tells these stories, nothing happens,” says Eubanks. “Forget Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee, all these different service and aid organizations—if there’s not a journalist behind it in the first place, then nothing will make a difference.
“The more and more I dove into press freedom issues, the more it became clear to me that if a journalist is stopped from being able to tell what’s happening in their region, then the world cannot act.”
Eubanks then made it his mission to get involved with an organization that supports journalists around the world. In 2019, he joined the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as a major gifts officer.
CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal, according to cpj.org. When press freedom violations occur, CPJ mobilizes a network of correspondents who report and act on behalf of those targeted. Action can range from winning the release of imprisoned journalists and securing convictions in journalist murders to effecting positive legal reform and providing emergency support to journalists.
“There’s a feeling of moving from crisis to crisis,” Eubanks says. “We’re still dealing with the aftermath of the fall of Afghanistan and will be for a while as we support journalists there. There are ongoing emergent needs out of Ethiopia and Myanmar. And since the start of the year, CPJ has already confirmed murders of journalists in Mexico. Unfortunately, these past and ongoing crises have prepared us for the Russia-Ukraine war.
“The outlook is grim, to be honest. War reporting is always dangerous,” he says. “I have such admiration for the courage of journalists to bring us the news, especially local reporters for whom this moment is a story about their own neighborhoods, their own homes.”
Eubanks is impact driven, and it shows in the path he has taken since graduating from Wabash as a religion major and psychology minor.
He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University in 2009 and was on a PhD track with the goal of becoming an educator. “My dream was to come back and teach at Wabash,” says Eubanks, but after spending more time in divinity school he realized that path wasn’t for him.
Eubanks signed up for the Peace Corps in 2010 and was assigned to Morocco. Living in the country for two years was an enlightening experience for Eubanks, who until taking Professor of Religion David Blix’s world religions course, had never been exposed to a world so different from what he knew growing up in Tennessee as a “Bible Belt southern boy.”
“I learned Moroccan Arabic and was fascinated with the Muslim world,” says Eubanks. “Being able to live in Morocco really opened my eyes.
“I was a senior in high school when September 11 happened. I had a very preconceived notion of what Islam was that was steeped in everything that happened around that terrorism attack. That was my first encounter with Islam. I took those young eyes, that hadn’t yet learned critical thinking, and a decade later, moved to a place where I was learning Arabic,” Eubanks says and then pauses, thinking about the host family who welcomed him as their own while he lived in the North African country.
“My host mother, Fatima, didn’t know English at all, but she made a point to learn one phrase: ‘I love you. You are my son.’ And she gave me the biggest hugs,” Eubanks recalls. “All those preconceived notions I had of Islam were shattered, right then and there.
“The time I spent there and the friends I made, both in the Peace Corps and Morocco, were powerful experiences in a lot of ways and inspired me to take the next steps forward in life to live more humanely.”
Professor of history and religion Bob Royalty remembers Eubanks as a good student who was attentive in classes and eager to learn more about the world.
“Philip was always all in and committed,” says Royalty. “I could see that he was figuring things out and opening up his world.”
Royalty has kept in contact with Eubanks over the years, and has noticed his former student’s passion develop even more as he traveled and discovered cultures “outside of the traditional religious worldview that he grew up with.”
“I think his passion is for justice, transparency, and democracy, which in a way, is what he was looking for in the Peace Corps—seeing the world and recognizing what’s worth fighting for,” says Royalty. “He’s perfectly melded that passion with his profession in fundraising, and that takes hard work in the nonprofit world. That work is very important right now because journalism worldwide is in crisis.”
Blix echoes Royalty’s remarks and says the work Eubanks is doing now with the Committee to Protect Journalists, is “just extraordinary and an act of great courage.”
“Journalists today are really fighting against great odds, and he’s out there fighting for them and with them,” says Blix. “He’s a young man who is an advocate for truth.”
Fundraising, says Eubanks, is especially difficult during this time in history with the ongoing pandemic and the increasing need to protect journalists and defend press freedom.
CPJ’s prison census in 2021 found that the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record of 293. Additionally, at least 27 journalists were killed because of their coverage and 18 others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets.
“Already, reporters have been shot at, shelled, and robbed in Ukraine. Russia shelled a TV tower in Kyiv,” Eubanks says. “In some cases, journalists have had to spend several days in a bomb shelter without adequate food or water. Within the first month of Russia’s full-scale invasion, at least seven journalists had been killed (as of April 6, 2022), and several others wounded.”
The reasons for the increase in the number of journalists being detained differ among countries, according to CPJ, but all reflect a trend in growing intolerance of reporting.
“I don’t think anybody would have ever thought there would be a scenario where a CNN journalist would be arrested on live TV, but it happened,” says Eubanks. “It was wild to see Omar Jimenez in Minneapolis covering protests over the death of George Floyd arrested right then and there.
“And suddenly you go, ‘What? Wait a minute, what country is this?’”
Even with these challenges, Eubanks says CPJ has experienced wins for press freedom worth celebrating. In 2021, more than 100 imprisoned journalists were released, convictions were made in 10 journalists’ murders, and crucial assistance was provided to more than 400 journalists globally.
Those successes were made thanks to the hard work of Eubanks’ CPJ colleagues, who constantly leave him in awe.
“I watched them start their day at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and work into the late evening Sunday to begin documenting cases of journalists trying to escape Afghanistan as the emergency team’s inbox filled up with hundreds of emails,” says Eubanks. In the weeks surrounding the fall of Kabul, CPJ helped 60 journalists, along with their families, flee Afghanistan.
“During 2020, when attacks against journalists in the U.S. skyrocketed 1000% [according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which CPJ co-founded with Freedom of the Press Foundation], I watched them meticulously work to demand justice in every instance. I’ve no doubt many of them are exhausted and worried and yet pressing forward—they’re my heroes for that.”
The journalists Eubanks has had the opportunity to interact with and support through CPJ motivate him to continue fighting for press freedom.
He specifically names Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, a Philippine news website created in 2012 that is renowned for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial policies and actions. Ressa, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been convicted on a criminal cyber libel charge and is facing extreme threats in the Philippines as state-orchestrated attacks continue to escalate against her and Rappler.
“I look at somebody like Maria, who still faces criminal charges in the Philippines, and chooses to live there even though she has an American passport and could theoretically evacuate. She ‘holds the line,’ as she likes to say, because she is so devoted and committed to the belief that a free press is really the foundation for all other human rights,” says Eubanks.
“If Maria can go through her day knowing that she could be harmed or arrested and detained forever at any moment, then surely I can hang in there and keep fighting for people like her.”