Press Advocates Sound Alarm as Attacks on Journalists Spike

(CN) – With the recent murder of one journalist and the disappearance of another overseas, press advocates are sounding the alarm and demanding the U.S. government do more to hold those who harm and jail reporters accountable.

FILE – In this Feb. 1, 2015, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. The Washington Post said Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, it was concerned for the safety of Khashoggi, a columnist for the newspaper, after he apparently went missing after going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

Forty-three journalists have been killed so far this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Although that number has decreased the last three years due to fewer reporters in conflict zones, the number of journalists murdered has risen from 18 last year to 27 thus far in 2018.

“It’s a reflection of increasing hostility toward journalists in and outside the United States,” said Kathy Kiely, a veteran journalist and free press advocate with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “It’s like there’s a global war on free speech. I think it’s a very dark time for journalists.”

The recent disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabia critic, and the rape and murder of Bulgarian TV host Viktoria Marinova, have shined a spotlight on escalating attacks on journalists across the globe.

Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials told The New York Times a team of Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi and dismembered his body. Saudi officials deny the allegations.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday he was “very disappointed” when asked about Saudi Arabia’s suspected role in the disappearance of Khashoggi, adding his administration is “going to get to the bottom” of what happened. The White House said high level officials had spoken with the Saudi government and demanded answers.

Marinova’s body was found in the northern Bulgarian city of Ruse on Saturday. A 21-year-old murder suspect was arrested in Germany, though authorities have not yet determined if Marinova was targeted because of her work. She had recently interviewed two journalists investigating corruption in the European Union.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. was “shocked and saddened” by Marinova’s death and called violence against journalists anywhere “a threat to freedom of the press and human rights.” The U.S. has urged Bulgaria to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into her death.

Despite the Trump administration’s quick response to those tragedies, press advocates say the president’s own policies and rhetoric are partly to blame for escalating attacks on journalists.

“We know that President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric has had an impact around the world,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Authoritarian officials in Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar, China, Russia and other nations have adopted variations of the “fake news” label popularized by Trump to discredit critics and vilify the press.

A portrait of slain television reporter Viktoria Marinova is placed on the Liberty Monument next to flowers and candles during a vigil in Ruse, Bulgaria, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. Bulgarian police are investigating the rape, beating and slaying of Marinova, whose body was dumped near the Danube River after she reported on the possible misuse of European Union funds in Bulgaria. One Bulgarian media site demanded an EU investigation, fearing that Bulgarian officials were complicit in the corruption. (AP Photo/Filip Dvorski)

But attacks on journalists aren’t isolated to authoritarian regimes. In October 2017, a car bomb killed investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. This past February, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was shot and killed in his home in Slovakia. And in June, a man walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and killed five newspaper employees.

“We’re seeing more violence against journalists in places where we didn’t used to see that happening,” Radsch said.

When asked about the global uptick in attacks on the press, a State Department spokesperson defended the U.S. government’s record on promoting press freedom around the world. The U.S. has invested millions of dollars in programs to train journalists on five continents and invested $145 million in the Internet Freedom Project, which provides tools and training for anti-censorship technologies, according to the State Department.

Still, press advocates say when Trump calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” he emboldens authoritarian regimes and others to harm journalists or throw them in jail. It’s an attitude toward the press that is inconsistent with traditional American values, according to Kiely.

“The United States has long been a beacon for free press,” Kiely said. “When you have the leader of that country speaking about the press the way he speaks about us, it greenlights people who have much darker motives.”

Kiely doesn’t place all the blame on Trump for the increasing hostility toward the media. In a period of rapid economic change and disruption, people can feel insecure and start to “blame the messenger,” she said. But she also thinks Trump’s rhetoric has added fuel to the fire.

“I think words matter,” Kiely said.

The State Department denies that Trump’s tendency to push back against negative media coverage has diminished press freedom in the U.S. or abroad.

“Challenging the accuracy of certain stories does not constitute a threat to the press or to freedom of expression. It is a manifestation of freedom of expression and the free interchange of ideas,” said the State Department spokesperson, who insisted on anonymity.

But Kiely believes it’s not just Trump’s verbal assaults that have placed journalists in a precarious situation across the globe. The administration’s immigration policies have also made it harder for foreign journalists to escape threats of violence and political persecution in their home countries.

Kieley has been working to help Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a reporter who fled Mexico in 2008 after his newspaper published an article revealing that members of the military threatened to kill him for a story he wrote. He was almost deported with his son in 2017 after an immigration judge rejected his asylum request. He was held in an ICE detention facility for months before his release last July. His case is now on appeal.

“What does that say to reporters working in dangerous countries across the world,” Kiely asked. “It says there’s no exits for you.”

Beyond threats of death and violence, journalists also face political persecution in countries like China, Egypt, Turkey and Myanmar, which have been known to throw reporters in jail for criticizing the government.

On Wednesday, three journalists were arrested in Myanmar for reporting possible financial mismanagement by government officials. Those arrests come five weeks after two Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years of hard labor for documenting mass killings and ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohinga Muslim minority.

The number of journalists jailed worldwide has more than doubled over the last decade, with 262 imprisoned in 2017 compared to 127 jailed in 2007, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

Press advocates say the Trump administration should use its bully pulpit and diplomatic power to pressure allies and trading partners to stop jailing journalists and to thoroughly investigate attacks on reporters.

Corporations and lobbyists could also rethink doing business with countries that stifle free press, Kiely said.

“I think they should ask themselves what kind of a country am I doing business with,” Kiely said, adding where the press is silenced, corruption thrives and “that’s not going to be good for business.”

Beyond pushing for the U.S. government and businesses to do more to stand up for press freedom around the world, Kiely says there’s something regular people can do as well.

“The most important thing people can do is subscribe,” she said. “They should pay money for good journalism and support good journalism with their money.”

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