Defending press freedom is not the same as celebrating great journalism

Courageous journalists have received lots of attention lately, with a Pulitzer Prize going to two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar, Congress rallying for accountability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and Time magazine naming Philippine reporter Maria Ressa and other brave journalists people of the year. With the UN designated World Press Freedom Day on May 3, these celebrations will kick into high gear.

Standing up for the these brave journalists is uplifting. It galvanizes the profession and inspires the public.

But defending press freedom is different. It’s also much harder.

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It involves defending the rights of journalists with whom we may disagree; or even journalists who may have behaved unethically. It means defending a principle that we value in the abstract, but can lead to serious negative consequences in the real world.

Over the years at CPJ, we’ve defended the rights of journalists who engage in speech we view as abhorrent; we’ve defended journalists who express sympathy for political groups that are engaged in violence, or even terrorism; we’ve defended the rights of journalists who have been negligent, compromised, and corrupt. For example, we haved called on governments to deliver justice for journalists we suspect were killed by one criminal organization for taking a bribe from another.

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I am gratified when the people in the United States and around the world stand up for the rights of journalists they admire. But I worry too few are willing to stand up for the value of a free press more broadly.

We are constantly reminded of the very real and very serious consequences for free speech online, which makes possible government-run information operations; the promulgation of hate speech; mass harassment and trolling; and the sharing of propaganda and violent content by extremist and terrorist groups.

 

There are often short-term benefits—terrible speech is suppressed. But let us be mindful of the long-term consequences

 

So in honor of World Press Freedom Day let’s consider what is at stake. Regulating, controlling, and managing the harmful effects of speech means ceding authority to governments and corporations who may, of course, abuse their power. There are often short-term benefits—terrible speech is suppressed. But let us be mindful of the long-term consequences: censorship and the suppression of critical speech, including journalism.

Three recent examples highlight the tradeoffs:

  • Following the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka which left over the 350 dead, the government blocked access to popular social media sites nationwide. It justified its action as necessary to stem the spread of “false news” that could trigger additional violence. The shut down was supported by many, ranging from local Sri Lankan journalists to New York Times columnist Kara Swisher. One can recognize their concerns, but also wonder whether the real reason the Sri Lankan government shutdown social media networks was to censor coverage of its own ineptitude and dysfunction. More ominously, governments are increasingly shutting down social media in times of crisis, imposing sweeping censorship at times when people are desperate for information.
  • Each day we learn more about generally loathsome behavior of Julian Assange. The latest revelation comes via the Mueller report, which alleges Assange offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the murder or Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, and implying that Rich was murdered in retaliation for the leaking of DNC emails to WikiLeaks. In fact, Rich was killed in a robbery and WikiLeaks received the documents via a Russian government cutout, an invented hacker dubbed Guccifer 2.0. None of this changes the fact that the extradition and prosecution of Assange could have far-reaching implications for press freedom. If Assange is prosecuted for publishing information—which remains a distinct possibility—it could set a legal precedent that would apply to all journalists everywhere in the world who publish classified information.
  • Following the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand which left 50 Muslim worshippers dead, social media companies worked together to scrub the Internet of the live video the killer posted of the attack. (They were not entirely successful; the video is still widely available on the deep web.) The companies had a clear responsibility to remove the video, which was done to thwart the terrorizing impact of a heinous crime. But it is worth pausing to consider how much power we are putting in the hands of social media companies to curb speech, and to also consider how much pressure these companies feel in the current environment to aggressively do so. YouTube for example has taken down footage documenting war crimes in Syria while Facebook removed the historic photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack because it violated their nudity standards.

Last year, in a speech at Chatham House, the London-based foreign affairs think tank, I argued that “the polarizing impact of free speech supercharged by technology on a global level can be frightening. But this is not the time to compromise on press freedom. We need to stand firm.” This World Press Freedom Day, I’ll be celebrating the amazing journalists who embody the best of our profession. But I’ll also be standing up for the broad principle that makes their work possible.

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Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the author of We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.