free press us government adam schiff

Editor’s Note: Adam Schiff is the Democratic US representative for California’s 28th Congressional District. He is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press. 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, under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

Story highlights

US must defend the rights of journalists worldwide, Rep. Adam Schiff says

They face greatest threat when foes believe they can be targeted with impunity, he says

CNN  — 

Seven years ago, I was proud to stand behind President Barack Obama as he signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. The bill, which I named in honor of former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, placed press freedom at the center of promoting human rights and democracy – where it belongs.

Adam Schiff

Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the September 11 attacks. Like many, I was shaken by Daniel’s death and moved by the courage and commitment that he, and so many other reporters around the world, demonstrate when they put themselves in real danger to tell stories that would otherwise go untold.

The Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act required the US State Department to report on press freedoms in its annual human rights report for the first time. Sadly, those reports have captured a world in which basic press freedoms and the safety of journalists are increasingly under threat from authoritarian regimes and violent nonstate actors.

Every day, journalists risk their lives to bring news and information to people around the world. They are often the first to report at the front lines of conflict zones, the first to uncover corruption and the first to suffer the backlash when powerful forces would rather keep something hidden. They are dedicated to the truth and driven by the belief that an informed world is a safer and better world.

The authoritarian governments, terrorists and organized crime organizations that try to silence journalists have one thing in common – they are all threatened by transparency and the free flow of information.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to silence independent media through a campaign of censorship and imprisonment that has made Turkey the world’s leading jailor of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.

In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has beheaded numerous journalists as part of its sadistic campaign of violence and terror. In Mexico, drug cartels have targeted the press and citizen journalists alike, hanging the mutilated bodies of social media users from a bridge as a warning to others who would report on their operations.

And, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has systematically suppressed the independent press through killings and intimidation, while building a state-sponsored propaganda network to take its place.

Promoting and protecting a free press is a value shared across the aisle. In 2006, I founded the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press with my then-colleague, Vice President Mike Pence. We created the caucus to inform our colleagues in Congress about the centrality of press freedom to human rights and economic development, and to exert pressure on countries that put journalists on trial, or worse, for the crime of telling the truth.

One of the first actions the newly formed Freedom of the Press Caucus took was writing to Putin in response to the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a world renowned investigative journalist who was slain in her apartment building in 2006. She was one of six journalists working for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta killed in recent years. It’s the same newspaper that earlier this year broke the story of Chechnya’s anti-gay campaign in which gay men were detained and tortured to death. Gazeta’s death was never properly investigated, and few observers believe those truly responsible were held accountable.

More recently, we called attention to Ahmed Abba, convicted in a Cameroonian military court on “terrorism charges” for reporting on the plight of those suffering at the hands of Boko Haram, and Vietnamese blogger and activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who was sentenced to 10 years by a Vietnamese court for her writing. And in September, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Mykola Semena was found guilty of “separatism” for expressing the view that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.

Journalists are under the greatest threat when governments or violent nonstate actors believe they can target them with impunity, and that no one will come to their aid. The caucus is our attempt to help meet that challenge by calling attention to governments that threaten or imprison journalists, or allow their killings to go unpunished.

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    The caucus continues its bipartisan work, with US Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio serving as co-chair. Unfortunately, there remain far too many nations in which press freedom and the safety and well-being of journalists are under daily threat. Too many journalists are jailed for reporting the truth or telling the stories that the powerful or violent would rather keep in the shadows. A nation cannot be free unless the press is free, and we must continue to stand with these brave truth tellers.

    A thriving marketplace of ideas, where reporters ask difficult questions and hold governments accountable for their words and actions, is critical to a free, democratic society. Wherever journalists face prison for questioning power, or are taken captive for fighting for the truth, I hope they will know they have an ally in the Freedom of the Press Caucus – and the United States of America.