Freed Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian speaks during the inauguration of the Washington Post Headquarters on January 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. 
Rezaian was released from Iran after 18 months behind bars on spying charges.   / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Jail time: An 'occupational hazard' for journalists
02:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Suzanne Nossel is CEO of PEN America. She was formerly executive director of Amnesty International USA and deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the State Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who had worked for Reuters and exposed the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys, recently received word that their final appeal had been denied by Myanmar’s Supreme Court.

Suzanne Nossel

This means that the two reporters – both fathers of children under age 4 – will, short of a pardon, spend the next seven years in jail. They were convicted of charges in relation to a blockbuster investigative report they had filed documenting the summary executions committed by Myanmar soldiers in the village of Inn Din in late 2017. The two were found to have violated Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, despite credible testimony by a police officer at their trial that they had been framed and committed no crime.

Press freedom advocates have risen up in defense of these dedicated journalists, awarding them prizes including the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and more than a dozen other honors. The US government, European leaders and other diplomats have weighed in, imploring Myanmar’s still-newly-elected democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a one-time human rights icon, to reverse this egregious violation of international norms protecting the freedom of the press. To no avail. Suu Kyi and the military generals with whom she makes common cause in order to sustain her rule are seemingly impervious to international pressure.

Detained Myanmar journalist Kyaw Soe Oo carrying his daughter is escorted by police for his ongoing trial at a court in Yangon on June 12, 2018.

Press freedom is not like most other freedoms. Unlike freedom of speech or association it is not a right that most of us personally exercise in daily life. Yet the freedom of journalists and news outlets to do their jobs is essential to democracy. The work journalists do to provide the news and analysis that allow us to understand the world around us, cast informed votes and hold our leaders accountable matters just as much as the individual rights we enjoy. That’s why freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and why we should be so alarmed to witness mounting encroachments upon it both here in the United States and around the world.

FDR’s “Four Freedoms” provide a model for a 21st-century free press

It is not enough simply to ensure that governments do not interfere with the operation of a free press. To effectively defend press freedom requires more from us than simply opposing government censorship and the persecution of journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

Although serious and worsening, these scourges are also part of a larger, interrelated set of threats to press freedom. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined the interlocking nature of liberties in his famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech, in which he imagined a world premised on freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want.

An understanding of press freedom fit for the 21st century would encompass a similar confluence of rights: the right of journalists and media organizations to report freely; the right of media organizations, editors and journalists to express their own opinions and ideologies; the imperative that journalists be able to operate without fear of government interference, violence or harassment; and the necessity that a vibrant media have the resources to deliver full and accurate news reporting. Right now, all four of these elements of press freedom are under attack.

In 1993 the United Nations declared May 3 World Press Freedom Day. Let’s face it, with dozens of UN commemorative days every year, it’s hard to keep them from blending together – or fading into the background altogether. But at a time when journalists are under political, economic and often physical attack, advocates of human rights and democracy should double down on press freedom as an inextricable part of the unified system of norms and values to which all UN Member States subscribe. Just as Earth Day has concentrated attention on environmental peril, World Press Freedom Day should become a rallying cry for all those who depend upon a free press to rise up in its defense.

The US is failing to take a stand

Draconian media controls and repression in authoritarian countries like Iran, China and North Korea are well known. But for the first time ever, a global press freedom index published last month reported that the United States had become “problematic” as a place for journalists to carry out their work.

President Donald Trump persistently berates the media as the “enemy of the American people,” targets critical journalists and media outlets for retaliation and tells his supporters that credible reporting is “fake news.” His hostility to the press corps has emboldened unleashed dictators worldwide to use proxy wars against the press to burnish their own standing.

According to a count published late last year, the number of journalists worldwide jailed on charges of reporting what their persecutors deemed “fake news” tripled in the last year, with fewer than a quarter of the 180 countries surveyed judged to offer safe or satisfactory environments for the media to carry out their work.