The world looks to America to defend press freedom

Updated 7:54 AM ET, Wed November 15, 2017

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Story highlights

  • Joel Simon: Press freedom is under fierce attack at a time when public confidence in the media has been shaken
  • The United States has an obligation to stand up and protect both the laws and norms protecting the press, writes Simon

Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. This is the next installment in the CNN Opinion series on the challenges facing the media, which is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)For a brief period, following more than four decades of military repression, Myanmar saw an explosion of independent media. Beginning in 2011, exiled journalists flooded back into the country and started new publications. They covered the news, criticized the government and contributed to a national debate.

But when I visited the country in June as part of a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, I observed serious backsliding. We met with the widow of a murdered journalist. We spoke with editors who told us they worried about going to jail. When we asked the government to amend a repressive law that makes it illegal to criticize people online, they promised to do so. But their proposed reforms were modest, leaving in place a three-year sentence for those convicted of defamation. The government was also unmoved by our appeals to allow journalists better access to Rakhine state, where government forces are engaged in a brutal campaign against the Rohingya minority.
A month later, I was in Ukraine, also on a CPJ mission. Ukraine saw a dramatic media opening following the 2014 Maidan revolution, which brought down the country's corrupt leader, Viktor Yanukovych. But those moments of euphoria are today a distant memory. We were there to push the government to investigate the murder of one of Ukraine's leading reporters, Pavel Sheremet, blown up in a car bomb a year ago. But the country -- and the media -- are deeply divided. The current president, Petro Poroshenko, draws an alarming distinction between "patriotic" and "unpatriotic" media. And fewer and fewer people believe in facts.
    Myanmar and Ukraine are just two countries, but they are part of a global trend. Around the world, press freedom is in steady decline, according to all of the latest surveys. Press freedom can vanish in an instant -- as has happened in Venezuela and Egypt. Or it can slowly erode, as has occurred in Kenya, Japan and Hungary.
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    What do you need to lose a free press? In my view, there are two facilitating factors: declining public confidence in the media and a polarizing political environment in which most don't know what's true and those who do know don't care.
    While we are a long way from such a state in the US, this is no time for complacency. The First Amendment is unique in all the world in providing legal protection for the broadest range of speech.
      But press freedom as experienced today in the United States is a relatively recent construct. Just ask journalists who covered the Civil Rights movement in the South. Civil rights reporter Bill Minor, who died in March, recalled a time not that long ago when journalists faced violence, harassment and legal assault -- and the "First Amendment didn't matter." He noted one paper in Mississippi, The Lexington, which was bombed in reprisal for its reporting on police brutality of black residents. Rather than investigating the crime, the local sheriff sued for libel.
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      In fact, when it comes to press freedom, norms are just as important as laws. There is no law requiring that political leaders hold press conferences. It is not illegal to refuse to take questions from a tough reporter. It's not a crime to insult journalists with whom you disagree.
      Laws have not changed in decades in the United States, and the Supreme Court continues to take a broad view of the First Amendment. But our norms are breaking down. We have a president who refers to journalists as enemies of the people and characterizes stories he doesn't like as fake news. So far President Donald Trump and those who echo his views are not seeking to change the laws. They are seeking to change the culture.
        The US tradition of respect for press freedom matters to people in the United States, but it also matters to all those around the world who stand up to defend these rights, people in places where they are under threat.
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        At a July photo op on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly pointed to the assembled journalists and whispered to Trump, "Are these the ones who are insulting you?"
        "Those are the ones," Trump replied. They had a good laugh. But Russia is a place where dozens of journalists have been murdered. There's nothing funny about that.
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        We need an American president who defends press freedom rather than mocks it. Around the world, journalists in places like Myanmar and Ukraine risk their lives to report the news. Do we as Americans value and respect their sacrifice? Or do we laugh in amusement as press freedom is rolled back, and journalists confront violence and repression?