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.
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.
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.
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.
The role of opinion and belief in shaping the news has come to the foreground with the rise of highly influential, ideologically-driven news outlets, including Fox News and counterparts in other countries that are sustained by cozy relationships with government leaders. Reports of Sinclair Broadcast Group – the largest owner of local TV news stations in the United States – directing news readers to recite corporate scripts in support of the Trump administration, and of the longtime editorial page editor of the Denver Post being blocked from publishing a critique of the paper’s new hedge fund owners point to a disturbing retreat in the news media’s independence.
Sinclair later went after CNN for its coverage of this story and is actively looking to expand its reach. Opinion pieces, analysis reflecting on personal views, and debate by commentators allied with different sides of a story all have their place, but they should be set apart and labeled as something other than news.
Groupthink, online harassment and economic threat: What journalists are facing in the fight to be free
To do their jobs well, journalists should be free from fear. While war zone coverage is unavoidably dangerous, reporters probing corruption in Mexico, Turkey or Azerbaijan, unearthing police massacres in Myanmar, or writing columns critical of the Saudi government should not have to worry about being arrested, jailed or even murdered for the work they do. Journalists like Nazli Ilicak in Turkey, Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan, and Anabel Flores Salazar have paid with their freedom or their lives for covering stories that others feared to tell. Last year, according to a count published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, approximately 250 journalists were jailed in the line of duty. Yet governments are not the only ones putting journalists at risk. Militias, cartels and smugglers recognize credible reporting as a threat to their missions and livelihood and are accustomed to resorting to violence.
The migration of news online has also given rise to other forms of more insidious reprisal and intimidation that are making the work of journalism far riskier. Online harassment and intimidation, including defamatory accusations, slurs, and even the publication of journalists’ phone numbers and home addresses to rile up angry readers have become par for the course. Newsroom management, law enforcement, and internet platforms are all far behind when it comes to the steps necessary to protect journalists’ safety and freedom to write.
While journalism has never been a profession one entered into for the money, journalists today are far from being free from want; the disintegration of traditional media business models has decimated newsrooms and created budget pressures that cut against credible journalism, especially at the local level. Twenty percent of local news outlets in the United States have closed over the last 14 years, and among those that survive, newsroom staffs and budgets have often been slashed by half or more. While a number of experimental philanthropic and nonprofit news ventures are working to establish new ways of doing journalism, none comes close to offering a sustainable economic model to replace the one that has broken.
Get our free weekly newsletter
It is easy to be cynical about media outlets that make mistakes and seem to lunge for the latest triviality. But amid the clickbait headlines and feeding frenzies over the latest political gaffe are courageous, essential acts of reporting like the exposé that won Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo their Pulitzer, and now means that they will be denied the chance to raise their young children. But press freedom is a liberty that undergirds all others. This year on World Press Freedom Day, it is time to remind ourselves and our governments about this essential liberty, and to recommit ourselves to the steps necessary to protect it.