Tough times for the world’s journalists

A societal commitment to the free flow of information has long been a hallmark of civilized and citizen-focused nations. The information flow needed for a self-governing citizenry is largely thanks to the dedicated efforts of journalists. Reporters act as surrogates for the public and work to hold accountable government leaders and other institutional sources of power.

Doing journalism is challenging, seldom lucrative, and sometimes dangerous. Recent reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders demonstrate the hazards associated with fueling the information needs of the world.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists report indicates that 251 journalists are currently imprisoned around the world. The political leaders in Turkey, China and Egypt are most guilty of stifling journalistic voices. Turkey tops the list with at least 68 journalists currently behind bars. That ignominious distinction is quite ironic, given that Turkish President Erdogan has so vocally condemned Saudi Arabia in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis, of course, have well-earned the world’s condemnation for their broad oppression of journalists, including the death of Khashoggi. Sixteen journalists are in jail right now for offending the Saudi regime, including four female journalists who have written about women’s rights.

Oppression of free press happens in locales around the globe, but there is a clear common denominator in all such occurrences — political authoritarians seek to shut up opposing views and control information.

Myanmar has been particularly hard on independent reporting this year. Authorities there recently sentenced two Reuters news service journalists to seven years in prison. Officials in Cameroon have jailed seven journalists in recent weeks, mostly for publishing what the government considered fake news about anti-government separatists.

The CPJ points out that 2018 is the third year in row for which the number of jailed journalists has topped 250. CPJ believes such repression represents a “sustained global crackdown on press freedom,” and cites China and Egypt, in particular, for stepping up efforts to suppress information. CPJ notes in its report that while the United States has publicly battled China over trade and tech issues, the Trump administration has not openly criticized China for crackdowns on information flow and press rights.

The Reporters Without Borders annual summary indicates that 80 journalists were killed in 2018 — in fact two additional reporters were killed between the time the report was released and the end of the year. Most of those deaths occurred in combat zones such as Afghanistan and Syria, but almost half were outside of conflict zones.

Not all journalist deaths are the result of government oppression. Murders of reporters in India and Mexico, for example are largely the result of targeting by organized crime or drug cartels. 

Interestingly, the United States ranks sixth on the list of countries for journalist deaths, primarily because of the shooting last June at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

The United States has long been considered the envy of the world when it comes to press freedoms, and with good reason. The First Amendment provides constitutional protections for free expression and the Supreme Court has made them stick.

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Still, the United States has had its own dismal forays into press suppression. Journalists were jailed for sedition during the John Adams administration. Abraham Lincoln looked the other way during the Civil War as military officers shut down anti-war newspapers and jailed reporters and editors. Such Civil War era journalists were considered treasonous and undeserving of free press protections. Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information during World War I strictly controlled the press, intimidating and suppressing newspapers that didn’t toe the Wilson propaganda line. One of America’s most famous journalists, Thomas Paine, spoke and published bravely in helping spark the American Revolution, but later was disenfranchised by George Washington and the other power brokers once independence had been won.

Today, the American press establishment relishes wearing the hair shirt as it suffers the media-bashing tweets and verbal scoldings of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE. Indeed, Trump’s verbal excesses, such as calling the press “enemy of the people” are boorish and unnecessary, but ultimately they are rhetorical levers. Today, there are no journalists in jail in the United States. And there won’t be as long as the Roberts Supreme Court is in place.

It’s hardly a free press catastrophe when the White House cuts back on press briefings, or cancels the White House-press Christmas party, or denies CNN’s Jim Acosta a follow-up question. Those shoving matches are small beer compared to the real dangers faced by journalists in international settings. Feigned martyrdom over tweets is unbecoming when put in perspective with the life and death challenges faced by fellow journalists trying to report in front of dictatorial regimes.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.