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The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters TRANSCRIPT

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The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters

Episode 95 – June 8, 2023

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This week on the inside story... A Free Press Matters.

From a massacre at a local newspaper to surging disinformation in Kenya and Ukraine, journalists around the world are under fire with violence on the rise.

How are they coping? And what could this mean for local and international reporting?

Now... The Inside Story... A Free Press Matters.

The Inside Story:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

As journalists we try to avoid being the story, but increasingly hostility and attacks mean media have to speak out.

The news we cover and events in communities, or even in our own newsrooms, can leave a permanent mark, which is why we are coming to you from Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy and just 50 miles from Washington, D.C.

I'm Jessica Jerreat. Welcome to The Inside Story.

On June 28, 2018, a gunman entered the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five and injuring two others. The incident was one of the worst attacks on media in the United States.

As the fifth anniversary approaches, VOA’s Cristina Caicedo Smit spoke with journalists from the Gazette about how that day has shaped their lives.


It was an act of violence that took the lives of five staff at Annapolis newspaper, the Capital Gazette, and changed the lives of those who survived.

Including photojournalist Paul W. Gillespie.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

I was sitting at my computer and I heard a loud crash, a loud shot and it was him shooting from the front door.


Amid the chaos, emergency lights, the yellow tape and the influx off first responders…

Journalists from the Gazette gathered in the back of a colleague’s truck and started writing.

In July 2021, the shooter who said he was upset at the newspaper’s coverage of him was found criminally responsible. He will serve life in prison for the murders.

But for Gillespie, the memories of that day are still vivid.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

And when I'm feeling really bad, it feels like I'm just waiting to die, waiting for, you know,

waiting for what should have happened to me that day to catch up to me.


The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at New York’s Columbia University says that 80% of reporters have been exposed to work-related traumatic events.

And groups like the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker record hundreds of assaults and threats against media.

For Gillespie, the shooting marked a before and after in his personal life and his career.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

I do get nervous about going to things and for a while after the, the shootings, even, even now, like they think twice about sending me to a vigil or something for somebody who's been shot, because around here, whenever somebody mentions gun violence, they all talk about the Capital Gazette.


His former colleague Rachel Pacella is another survivor.

A reporter, Pacella covered the Anne Arundel County school system, public land access and obituaries for children.

Rachel Pacella, Journalist:

I was just very naturally curious as a child. I loved reading the paper, and once I tried it out in high school, interning at my local paper, you know, I really didn't see myself doing anything else. I loved going and telling stories.


The day of the shooting, Pacella was inside the newsroom.

That event changed her life, but it also taught her something about herself.

Rachel Pacella, Journalist:

I guess I would say, you know, it really taught me perseverance, you know, to continue after that.


Pacella only recently stopped working at the Annapolis newspaper to pursue a career in communications. But the experience made her reflect on the security of journalists in the U.S.

Rachel Pacella, Journalist:

As work went remote, I suppose there's no longer like a central target, but I, I do worry about how a journalist would keep themselves safe, you know, in their own home without any kind of support or resources from other people.


In Annapolis, the Guardians of the First Amendment Memorial honors the five lives lost: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters.

Gillespie too is honoring his Capital Gazette family through an exhibition.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

What was great about my project here that is all around us is I got to talk to every one of these people making these pictures. Like they would come to my studio and for an hour, hour, and a half, we would have like, what I considered to be like mini therapy sessions between us.


The idea for the exhibition came when Gillespie was struggling. But a documentary on a photographer he admired brought inspiration.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

I was like, I want to try that, you know, so I cleared out space in my basement and I made a studio. And I was like, ‘Who can I photograph?’ And I said, ‘Well my Capital Gazette family.’


Gillespie is the last photojournalist at the Gazette from that 2018 newsroom. He still goes out on assignments and is committed to local journalism.

Paul W. Gillespie, Photojournalist, Capital Gazette:

We are not the enemy of the people. We are your neighbors. We're your sons, your daughters, your, you know, your parents out there.


Cristina Caicedo Smit, VOA News Annapolis.


As we just saw, the journalists here are still healing from that day.

The physical dangers for journalists out on assignment are well documented. But increasingly, the media community is looking at the emotional toll of covering violence and tragic events …

We take you now to VOA’s New York Bureau, where Cristina Caicedo Smit spoke with Hannah Storm.

She’s the co-founder of the Headlines Network and a specialist in mental health and media safety.


Specifically talking about mental health and you know, how journalists cope with you know, violence and being victims sometimes of a violent crime. What is the conversation that media managers are having?

Hannah Storm, Headlines Network Co-founder:

I think we've seen the conversation around mental health and journalism change quite significantly in the last couple of decades. We went from a situation where there were very many taboos, a lot of stigma around an admissions of vulnerability. This idea that we had to be really macho we had to an admission of vulnerability was an admission of failure, which is obviously wrong. So we've seen this change in conversation over the past decade. couple of decades, really, to the point where there's more of a realization in newsrooms that we need to address and acknowledge and normalize conversations around mental health and the impact of our work on us. And that can be across a whole spectrum from witnessing and take and experiencing really violence, experiences or trauma, through to conversations about the other impacts of our work and our profession and our personal lives, our mental health.


When you have a reporter covering, you know, a war, or covering a very violent city. How did you address that, you know, mental health at the same time balancing your work?

Hannah Storm, Headlines Network Co-founder:

I think it's really important to acknowledge actually that mental health and mental safety and wellbeing is the other side of the coin from physical safety and physical health. We can't have one without the other. So this is about helping journalists feel more empowered, I suppose to do their jobs. Because they're recognized that the mental health is important. There are a few different things and I'd acknowledge that I'm a journalist by background and not a clinician, though from speaking with hundreds of journalists the past few years and having had my own experience of post traumatic stress. There are certain things that I think are as we call them protective. I think one is a sense of understanding why we're doing our job. We're bearing witness, you know, we're holding power to account we're striving to, to end injustice, so that bearing witness is important.

The other thing I'd say is that connecting with people who we trust, having a community around us who we can speak with about our mental health is super important to from the newsroom lead aside, I'd say that we need to kind of see this as holistic conversation around physical safety and mental health, but also conversation around what do we do to support our journalists in advance.

So, what's the risk assessment like? How might they be impacted from mental health side? What are we doing to support them during the coverage of the story or during the situation? And what are we doing afterwards? Critically kind of understanding what are we doing in terms of a debriefing and what support we got in place because the impact of trauma may not come about for quite a long time. And I think there's two more things that you're really important to say is, one is, it's normal for us to have a reaction to a difficult situation. It's our body and brain kind of going. This is weird, this is unacceptable, and dealing with that. So that's important to note. And it's also important to know that journalists are resilient. Data Research shows that journalists are resilient. That doesn't mean that journalists are immune.


I had the opportunity to talk to some of the survivors of the capital Gazette shooting these years going to be five years since that incident occurred. And one of the things that one of the reporters mentioned was that he initially tried to block it, you know, it was when he was going out to cover stories or to take photos and you know, he had to go out and cover a crime scene or you know, this type of incident he usually try to block it. Is that a good strategy or not?

Hannah Storm, Headlines Network Co-founder:

I think everybody has different coping strategies, like everybody has mental health but has it in different ways, right? I think it's, I would strongly encourage people to seek help if they feel they need to. I've been through therapy. I've been in therapy for many, many years. And I think being able to speak with somebody who's a clinician is super important.

I would say that some news organizations are doing great stuff, fantastic stuff. They've got peer support networks, employee assistance programs, they offer therapy, they'll offer webinars and conversations, effective communication. But but there's two other things I'd say is one is that I feel like, you know, what makes journalism great is the sense of connection and sense of empathy. We connect with our sources and our stories we amplify their experiences. Those same soft skills can be used within our newsrooms. We should have empathy and connection around our colleagues to simply ask them, how are you? Are you okay? Are you really okay?

What worries me is we're losing people who are burnt out. We're losing people, diverse people, you know, people from diverse backgrounds, who we need in our newsrooms, because they feel unheard, and they feel marginalized and they feel unable to share their experiences. So I think we can certainly be doing more.

There's a lot of burnout happening. There's a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of depression, but this is not a kind of negative thing that we need to be. So, what I'm saying is, I guess journalism is a fantastic profession. We are resilient. We do have the tools to support us. We do have that kind of protective step back in terms of saying that, why are we doing this? We're doing this to bear witness. So I think that if we will remind ourselves that, you know, things are positive, but I do still think there's more work to be done in the mental health space.


Threats to journalists are a global issue. In Kenya, acts of violence and intimidation are on the rise gainst media members.

The number of attacks went up during their last election cycle and continues to place journalists at risk.

For VOA from Nairobi, Saida Swaleh spoke with media experts about how attacks—on and offline—put journalism at risk.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

Eric Ininta scrolls through images. They show a protest the NTV video journalist had been assigned to cover in late March.

Organized by Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga, protesters rallied against the cost of living. But what started as a peaceful event soon turned chaotic.

Eric Isinta, Video Journalist, NTV Kenya:

The teargas was actually thrown on us. We were coughing at that moment, I remember telling my crew members—[there] were actually 4 of us up there-- so I was telling my

fellow cameraperson that, ‘Please let’s just go down because it has never been this way.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

The journalists had their equipment on top of a vehicle, searching for the perfect shot when police approached and fired tear gas in their direction.

Eric Isinta, Video Journalist, NTV Kenya:

The moment I just turned this side to pick my camera because it was hanging, then I was hit by this teargas … Then I didn’t know what happened from there. I just found myself on the tarmac in a pool of water, then there was more teargas. The first thing I saw when I gained consciousness was my 4-month-old child and my wife.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

The Media Council of Kenya took up his case--and others.

David Omwoyo, Media Council of Kenya:

We have written to the inspector general of police, we have documented the cases and following the cases one by one.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

Kenya’s Inspector General of Police apologized after the protests and said any malpractice will be dealt with.

The Media Council is also working to ensure journalists have access to newsworthy events, including the exhumation of members of a cult found in a mass grave. Authorities tried to restrict access for the press, says Omwoyo.

David Omwoyo, Media Council of Kenya:

I told the government that the approach is unacceptable, but I told them that we understand what you are going through but put up a media center and organize regular briefings. Whenever you shut down the media you open the flood gates of rumors and rumors can kill a country because people now lack verification and legitimacy.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

Kenya is seeing the same surge in dis and misinformation witnessed globally, say media experts.

Nancy Booker, Aga Khan University School of Media:

There’s been a lot of misinformation. A lot of it exacerbated at the height of the pandemic. And we see the effects of that even to date.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

For Isinta, the scars from his protest assignment are a reminder of a narrow escape.

Eric Isinta, Video Journalist, NTV Kenya:

You see this is the eye that I use, every cameraperson uses this eye that I use for my daily activities, so when it is hit. My only gratitude is that I am alive and that I can see my family. That’s the only important thing in my life.

SAIDA SWALEH, Reporting for VOA:

The experience underscores too the dangers media confront on a regular basis.

For VOA, Saida Swaleh in Nairobi, Kenya.


It’s not just threats from attacks and disinformation. Globally, we are also witnessing the steady decline of civil liberties and democracies, which affect press freedom.

Even here in the United States, the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, is not immune.

Eileen O’Reilly, President of the National Press Club and managing editor of Standards and Training at Axios, spoke with VOA about her views on press freedom here in the United States.

Eileen O’Reilly, National Press Club President:

I do worry about the state of press freedom in the United States. It is such a pillar of our democracy and I feel is being eroded by these cases and being chipped away by people trying to restrict the rights to freedom of information. So that is definitely a concern that we are constantly amplifying that you know, what a danger that is for democracy.

I still believe that most of the American people understand how important journalism is to their democracy, that they rely on journalists to bring them the news and what's happening and why it matters to them. I'm hopeful.

There's always been cases where people either dismiss the importance of journalists or they actually take violent actions against them because they're trying to repress that information and they want to control the message. But that is something that I'm hopeful that most Americans will understand should never be supported.

America is very fortunate to have that first amendment rights and we sometimes I think we take it for granted but we shouldn't. If you look overseas, a lot of other countries do not have that type of protection.

Without having journalists who can tell you what's happening then who's going to hold our leaders or business people or landowners or our regulators accountable for what they're supposed to be doing, to what our taxpayer money is going towards them doing? And towards you know, what is best for the community.

Everyone needs to know what's happening so they can make their own decision and take part in their society.


Earlier, we saw the violence Kenyan journalists confront for doing little more than their jobs.

But what happens when journalists switch from media to military and take up arms in a conflict they once covered?

That’s exactly what’s happening in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion last year …

We head now to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where Anna Chernikova and U.S.-based Veronica Balderas Iglesias bring us this story of an American reporter turned soldier.


With Russia’s war in Ukraine waged in the information space as well as on the ground, some journalists have gone from reporting about the front lines to literally defending them.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo is a U.S. journalist who reported for LGBTQ-plus media before signing up to Ukraine’s military.

The turning point for Ashton-Cirillo: evidence of war crimes in the city of Kharkiv.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, Armed Forces of Ukraine:

I said, ‘Am I better serving democracy as a journalist? Or can I do more as a soldier for the armed forces of Ukraine?’ And after much deliberation, discussions with my senior officers, other journalists, I felt that being in the army suited the service to freedom better than remaining as a journalist.


It’s a decision many Ukrainian journalists grapple with. Several have swapped newsrooms for the front line, says Sergiy Tomilenko, president of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

Covering the war as a journalist is risky enough. At least 14 lost their lives on assignment in Ukraine, including AFP photojournalist Arman Soldin, killed in May near the city of Bakhmut, a center of intense fighting.

But fighting the war is much riskier. Around 40 journalists who left the media for the Ukranian military have been killed on the battlefield, says Tomilenko.

Sergiy Tomilenko, National Union of Journalists of Ukraine:

For us, every death of every media worker — whether during the performance of their professional duties or when our colleagues die as civilian victims or as mobilized heroes — is a tragedy for us.


Whether as a journalist or a junior sergeant in Ukraine’s armed forces, Ashton-Cirillo says she wants to defend freedom.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, Armed Forces of Ukraine:

It wasn't so much that I moved from fighting for freedom as a journalist to fighting for freedom as a soldier, as a journalist truly engaged in making certain that the world is a free place.


Alongside her military role, Ashton-Cirillo is active on social media, where Russian propaganda is rife. But, she says, artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT offer a way to counter that disinformation.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, Armed, Armed Forces of Ukraine:

We're able to help counter the Russian propaganda, help counter the Russian narratives, because we have fact-based information arriving into our hands in a much quicker way. Ultimately, AI will never replace the human being.


For Tomilenko, the priority is ensuring media have access.

Sergiy Tomilenko, National Union of Journalists of Ukraine:

There are indeed certain limitations when covering military events. There are certain press services that call on not covering something, expecting official speakers to comment later. But in general, we do not see such a global atmosphere of censorship and restrictions “In most Ukrainian and international media, we see the same truth of the war. Cruel, scary, but still a picture of reality.”


Ashton-Cirillo says Ukraine has a large, vocal group of LGBTQ plus fighters.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, Armed Forces of Ukraine:

In the case of myself and the other out trans women who are fighting, we happen to be on the front; we happen to be a bit more visible. But ultimately, everyone can take their level of visibility and use it to strengthen democracy and to strengthen LGBTQ rights.


And in Tomilenko's view, whether in the media or the military, Ukrainian journalists are fulfilling their duty.

With reporting from Anna Chernikova in Kyiv, Veronica Balderas Iglesias, VOA News.


The Ukraine war continues altering the landscape of that country.

But other places are no stranger to violence against journalists.

Take Afghanistan, where following the Taliban’s takeover just two years ago, women journalists have quite literally run for their lives.

Lima Spesali had a long career in media, including as an anchor hosting current affairs programs.

But that all changed after the collapse of Kabul.

She fled to neighboring Pakistan late last year and tells us, in her own words, what life is like for female journalists under a repressive regime.

Lima Spesali, Journalist:

In Afghanistan, the main challenge for media is that they are under complete control and censorship. Media have no freedom; there is no freedom of expression. The current rulers of Afghanistan somehow control all the media, and they do not allow reports about what is happening in the country or what people want aired. The current rulers use media as a loudspeaker for their propaganda.

In Afghanistan, what the people want [covered] is how the [Taliban] treat people, what the facts are and how people live. These are what the people want the media to air.

Unfortunately, media neither have the right nor the permission to broadcast what the people want. They cannot air reports that are based on fact or that reflect people’s lives. Unfortunately, no media [in Afghanistan] can air what the people want.

Freedom of the media means building a bridge between the people and the government. Free media can prevent corruption in the government and society [and] reflect the truth.

They can make reports and have programs on it. Unfortunately, under the current government, the media do not have freedom.


That’s all for now. I am Jessica Jerreat in Annapolis, Maryland.

As we close out this week’s episode, we want

to highlight the plight of two fellow American journalists.

Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia, and freelance journalist, Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in Syria back in 2012 and has been missing for over a decade.

As we leave you, we honor the five members of the Capital Gazette who lost their lives here in Annapolis in 2018.

I am Jessica Jerreat.

See you next week on The Inside Story.