The global assault on journalists continued unabated in 2019 — and it falls to those of us who have the good fortune to work under the protective embrace of the First Amendment to acknowledge those not so fortunate.
It also falls to us to shine a light into those dark corners lest the sacrifices of fellow journalists be forgotten, but also to remind readers that wherever the rights of journalists are endangered so too are the rights of average citizens. Journalists are very much the canary in the coal mine when it comes to freedom of expression.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists lists some 250 journalists imprisoned in the past year as of Dec. 1 for the “crime” of doing their jobs.
Not surprisingly, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt lead the list of journalist-jailers. CPJ notes, however, that Turkey isn’t in its usual number one spot, because this past year, dozens of journalists were facing trial or out pending appeal of their convictions, in addition to the 47 journalists actually in prison. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also been successful in closing down more than 100 news outlets and sending scores of journalists into exile.
Saudi Arabia has at least 26 journalists in prison. CPJ reports, “Saudi authorities barely make any pretense of due process; no charges have been disclosed in 18 of the cases, and those who have been tried have been sentenced in a secretive and often rushed manner.”
And we will never forget the price paid by Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018. Last week five men were sentenced to death and three to prison terms for his murder. But as Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur who investigated the murder, wrote on Twitter, “The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial. This is the antithesis of justice. It is a mockery.”
Yet it is all too typical of the way autocracies deal with crimes against journalists. They often go largely unpunished — another way of keeping journalists “in their place.”
One of the more disturbing trends, CPJ notes, is that while most journalists continue to be imprisoned on “anti-state” charges, an increasing number are facing arrest on “false news” charges — a crime freshly added to the arsenal used by autocrats around the world to fight against a free press.
Yes, thanks to President Trump, accusations of “fake news” are so acceptable that President Vladimir Putin of Russia now has his own anti-fake-news law to use as a cudgel against the few remaining independent journalists willing to write the truth about his corrupt regime.
If there was one hopeful sign in otherwise grim year-end statistics, it’s that 2019 saw a drop in the number of journalists killed in the line of duty. Reporters Without Borders put the number at 49, the lowest since 2003. Fewer journalists were killed in combat zones, but 63 were murdered or deliberately targeted because of the work they do.
The work of journalists is never easy — not even here, where the president continues to blame a vigilant media for many of his self-inflicted wounds and to levy charges of “fake news” whenever the facts challenge his political agenda. But around the world there are journalists who face down criminal cartels, government-sanctioned thugs, and corrupt and autocratic regimes.
Their courage in the face of those challenges is an inspiration to their journalist colleagues, but also to people everywhere who value a free and independent media and the inalienable right to speak freely themselves.