What others say: Threats to the press

  • Monday, January 2, 2017 8:43pm
  • Opinion

While some in America celebrate the alleged demise of the “lame stream media,” it is crucial to remember that dictators and extremists benefit most when reporters are prevented from doing their jobs. Such a reminder comes from the year-end report by the group Reporters Without Borders, which has compiled a list showing that 74 professional and citizen journalists were killed in 2016.

“Some were killed while out reporting,” the group’s round-up says. “Most were clearly the deliberately targeted victims of deadly violence.” In fact, “Worldwide, nearly three quarters of the journalists killed in 2016 were deliberately murdered.”

The report documents the deaths of journalists like Mariam Ebrahimi, Mehri Azizi and Zainab Mirzaee, three women killed when a suicide bomber targeted their minibus in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Also in Afghanistan, a Taliban ambush killed David Gilkey, an American photojournalist working for National Public Radio.

Photojournalist Osama Jumaa was killed in an Aleppo, Syria, neighborhood while covering the civil war for a British news agency.

An ISIS sniper killed cameraman Ali Raysan in a village near Mosul, Iraq. Find more information at https://rsf.org/en.

It is no surprise that most of the deaths — as well as arrests and imprisonment — occur in countries riven by war and dominated by authoritarian factions and/or regimes. Places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan lead the list for murdered journalists. Sadly, Mexico also makes the list because the de facto war between police and cartels puts journalists in the line of fire from all sides.

No journalists were killed in America in 2016. We do not make any claim of parity between what goes on in Syria and what goes on in the United States. But only a fool, or a friend of authoritarianism, would dismiss as unimportant the growing assaults on the free press in America, including those by the country’s soon-to-be president.

Donald Trump has vilified the press at campaign rallies and continued the practice during “Thank You” tours even as he claims that he wants to unite the nation. He has suggested making it easier to squelch reporting by eliminating protections in libel laws. And Trump isn’t just talking. He has restricted press coverage of his activities and revoked credentials of media outlets whose coverage he did not like.

Not that President Barack Obama championed the free press. He restricted coverage of his administration’s activities and, more than any modern president, sought criminal charges against those involved in press leaks. It is chilling to think Trump could do worse.

Official disdain for the free press is even more ominous in the current climate, when too many people seem incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood or, to put it bluntly, willingly ignore the truth if their candidate is the source of the lies. There are serious allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to swing our election to Trump. Trump’s defensive reaction to those allegations has not instilled confidence that he is eager to uncover the truth.

The rise of citizen journalists is commendable — when they have the desire and the ability to report the news and clearly label opinion as opinion. Citizen journalists are filling the gaps in places like Aleppo, where the violence and danger are so extreme that news agencies have withdrawn reporters — a necessity that explains the decline in journalists’ deaths from 2015, when 101 were killed.

Diminished reporting from such regions ought to concern Americans. Not only do we have troops and “advisers” deployed to hot spots, they tend to be the triggers for international confrontations.

Citizen journalists are valuable when they behave like professional journalists. There are not nearly enough of them to replace the work of the professional reporters who, day in and day out, are the bedrock of accurate news in America.

This country still is blessed with a free press that citizens of places like Iran, Russia, Iraq, Turkey, China and Mexico only can dream about. Tension between the press and government is inevitable in countries where the free press does its job. What is the tipping point between tension and violence, freedom and authoritarianism? Let’s not find out.

—The SunSentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dec. 27

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