When it comes to press freedom, America is no longer a ‘beacon’ for the world

Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaks at a kickoff event for CJR's new print issue in Toronto.

In mid-December of last year, Reuters Chief Operating Officer Reg Chua got a call no editor wants to receive. Two of the news agency’s reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, had gone to dinner with police officers in Myanmar and not come back. The pair, as Chua would later discover, had been arrested under the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They had been investigating the brutal oppression of the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine state. Chua immediately went to work, filing a missing persons report and reassuring other reporters in the region.

Last week, Reuters published the findings of Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, and two colleagues in an extraordinary special report laying out the events leading up to the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din village last September, including groundbreaking confessions implicating Buddhist villagers and Myanmar’s security services. For Reuters Editor in Chief Stephen Adler (who chairs CJR’s Board of Overseers), the decision to publish was clear cut, despite the risks attached for the still-incarcerated reporters. “Our bias will always be toward publishing,” he says. “In addition, the reporters in prison really wanted it published.”

ICYMI: “In his first year in office, Trump has attacked the press relentlessly. But the legal assault has not come.”

Chua and Adler spoke in Toronto on Monday at an event sponsored by CJR in collaboration with Reuters, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and The Globe and Mail. The conference marked the kickoff of CJR’s newest print magazine, published in collaboration with CPJ and focused on press threats in the US and beyond. According to CPJ data, a record number of journalists—262—were imprisoned worldwide in 2017, as governments realize that jailing journalists can sometimes be a way to silence them. “It’s an effective tactic to throw journalists in jail,” CPJ Board Chair Kathleen Carroll said in Toronto. “That’s why so many of them are in jail.”

 

Donald Trump’s anti-journalism rhetoric has galvanized many of the world’s despots, as well as would-be despots in democracies like Poland and Hungary. But, as many panelists on Monday noted, global press threats have a longer history than Trump. Al Jazeera English’s Jeff Ballou reflected on the imprisonment of his colleagues in Egypt, where three of Al Jazeera’s reporters were jailed in 2013 for supposed ties to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and another, Mahmoud Hussein, remains in detention following his 2016 arrest. Others spoke about long-standing climates of intimidation and fear in countries as diverse as Rwanda, Iran, and the Philippines. As CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon pointed out, 97 percent of jailed journalists are in prison in their own country.

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As the Toronto event and CJR’s accompanying “Threats” issue make clear, the US can’t claim immunity from the sort of problems that riddle these countries. “The US used to be a beacon, [projecting] ‘Here’s what we do, here’s what you should do,’” CJR’s Chief Digital Writer Mathew Ingram said on Monday. That’s no longer the case. “We depend on the US to stand up for press freedom at the United Nations,” added CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch. “It’s very hard when you have a president with this rhetoric and lack of normative power.”

The US has also been exporting press threats unrelated to Trump. Facebook and other social networks, for example, are US-based and often have a US-centric view of how their services should operate. Ingram touched on Facebook’s experiments in countries like Cambodia, where it recently removed news articles from users’ main feeds. While Facebook saw this as a kind of product-centric A/B test, it had serious consequences for citizens: In Cambodia, most people get their news from Facebook, and the country’s autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen, has made the site a key plank of his communications strategy. “Facebook is a massive double-edged sword,” Ingram said. “In fact, if there’s a sword that has more than two edges, Facebook is that sword.”

Panelists also reflected on the blasé attitude of many US news organizations, despite increased proximity to severe threats to their work. According to CPJ’s Carroll, US outlets have generally done a poor job of working together to counter dangers to their craft, often lapsing into old, competitive instincts instead. “The international agencies have always worked closely [in terms of reporters’ safety],” she said. “But if you tried to decide whether to have peanut butter with strawberry or grape jelly with the White House press corps you’d be there for six days.”

The first panel in Toronto, moderated by CJR Editor Kyle Pope, focused on the surprisingly wide range of domestic press threats, from the erasure of digital archives to non-disclosure agreements that gag journalists to the risk of reporter and reader burnout. CJR Senior Delacorte Fellow and Staff Writer Alexandria Neason said the wave of killings of black Americans by police in recent years, for example, has been a particularly hard story to process and report on. “You experience [these things] first as a person in the world, then as a reporter, and the rules are different for those two identities. But you only have one Twitter account,” she said.

Some panelists on Monday did sound notes of optimism amid the gloom. Ingram, for instance, said it’s important to keep in mind how social media could still inspire far-reaching positive change in a troubled industry. But, like social media, other apparent avenues of optimism have turned out to be problematic. Reuters’s Americas News Editor Paul Thomasch said that while reporters do enjoy greater access to White House officials under Trump, much of the information they get from that access is false, distracting, or trivial.

So how can journalists, both in America and overseas, push back against the threats facing their profession? Sometimes, it’s simply a question of shouting about them loudly and relentlessly, as Reuters has done about Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Other times, it’s about rationing exposure to protect your mental health. But that’s not always possible. “Moving away from the news makes it very hard for me to do my job,” said CJR’s Neason. “Sometimes you put your phone down knowing it’ll suck when you pick it up again. Sometimes you put it down and really regret it the next day when you show up at work.”

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Jon Allsop is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.