Protecting Press Freedom in the US

November 13, 2019 12:29 PM
Press Freedom Podcast: Protecting Press Freedom in the US
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Recently a coalition of journalism and media groups joined together to launch the "Protect Press Freedom" campaign, with the Reporter's Committee for a Free Press (RCPF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) taking the lead.

VOA spoke with Joel Simon, executive director the CPJ, and what the campaign is, and why it's needed. 


VOA: Thinking of facing those obstacles to reporting the news you and several other organizations recently launched what's being called the Protect Press Freedom Campaign which I believe is something aimed at the United States. What is this campaign?

Joel Simon: The campaign is intended to create awareness in this country that something we take for granted – which is press freedom and the right of journalists to do their work – is threatened. It's threatened in sometimes highly visible ways and sometimes more subtle way. And our sense based on the survey data is that Americans care deeply about press freedom but they're not aware of the threat. And the purpose of this campaign is to change that.

VOA: Give us an example of some of the threats which are obvious and those not so much.

Simon: Well I think one of the things that might be less obvious and this is based on our data is because of the decline in local news organizations, there are fewer local newspapers across the country.

Many important local stories are covered by journalists without the resources and support that they that journalists have traditionally enjoyed. And one of the challenges is covering protests and demonstrations.

We've seen a pretty sharp uptick in, for example, arrest and detentions of journalists covering demonstrations. We've also seen that journalists covering demonstrations and protests are facing increased hostility from the people who are protesting. So that's become a very difficult and dangerous story to cover.
There are also emerging legal threats including aggressive prosecution of leakers. This began during the Obama administration but it's continued under the Trump administration.

So there's myriad threats on myriad fronts where everyone's aware of President Trump's rhetoric and certainly his anti-media rhetoric is troubling. But many of the other threats are much more concrete and much more real.

VOA: A friend of mine, a longtime journalist did a lot of coverage of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election and is doing some now in the lead up to 2020. And this person said to me something which they didn't want to say on the record but they said ‘you know I've covered a lot of campaign rallies in my time and for the first time ever. I now find myself when I go into one of these big rallies looking for the nearest exit. And I've begun advising my younger colleagues to do the same.’
That is chilling to me frankly.

Simon: And we hear that sort of thing all the time. I was talking to a journalist the other day who was in the press pen at one of the Trump rallies. And there was a person outside who was you know dragging his finger across his throat and threatening the journalists.
That's become pretty standard. And there are people who see this kind of anti-media rhetoric that the president engages in a license to threaten the media and there have specific instances of instances.

We know the phone threats phoned into The Boston Globe. We know the pipe bombs that were sent to CNN and other media organizations and other critics. And while it's not related to Trump's rhetoric what happened at the Capital Gazette in which four journalists and a media worker were were gunned down in the newsroom is a reminder of just how vulnerable journalists feel in this country and how this kind of hostile rhetoric heightens their sense of vulnerability.

So journalists definitely are aware of this climate and it's something that their safety was something they take for took for granted. That's not the case anymore.

VOA: Do you hear from people saying they've had enough and are just leaving the profession?

Simon: Yeah I hear from people all the time would tell me they're leaving the profession. But that's not that's for different reasons. It's very hard to make a living as a journalist. There's been a collapse because of the business model and local news coverage. There are fewer journalism jobs. And the ones that exist tend to be not as well paid.

And ironically what that does is it means the people who are continually in the profession are some of the most dedicated and committed. I think that journalists are highly conscious and deeply concerned about the changing press freedom climate. They're concerned about the kind of rhetoric they're hearing from the president. They're concerned about the way that people are feel emboldened to threaten, criticize, attack, harass journalists online.

But I honestly I don't think they were deterred. I feel that most many journalists out there are almost invigorated by the challenge and the sense of mission that needed to be a journalist in this moment.

VOA: How do you expect that this new campaign will try and turn things around perhaps make it you know make conditions safer for journalists working in the United States, given the fact that the occupant of the Oval Office now and for some time to come likely is fond of employing occasionally harsh rhetoric about the press?

Simon: It's a process and we deliberately designed a campaign that is non-partisan and we hope is unifying and can be interpreted in different ways. It's focused on the sensation that people have when the news disappears. So it shows people watching television and this you know the screen goes blank or accessing their phone and their phone suddenly goes blank or listening to the news engaging with information in different ways.
And that's the experience people have. They have that for a variety of different reasons as I said because maybe their local newspaper went under or because maybe they feel like when they go online the information they need is drowned out in a deluge of disinformation and misinformation.

So ask or maybe they have a greater awareness of the actual threats to press freedom. But regardless people we want to make people aware that this is a fundamental facet of American political life. It's guaranteed in the First Amendment of our constitution and it's threatened in ways that may not be visible. And the other thing that we're doing is we're building a coalition of groups, of media organizations and hopefully members of the public that are committed to the defense of the principle.

We recognize that the president is going to continue to attack and undermine – it’s fine that the President to criticize media coverage. What troubles us is when he undermines the very institution of the press and that has repercussions in this country and around the world.

And we want to counter that narrative. We want to say ‘Mr. President: people have lots of criticism of the media. People don't always like journalists. But they like the freedom. That's part of our political contract with each other.  People have this fundamental right. And that this freedom that we have enjoyed in this country has inspired people around the world. And it's precious, and we must preserve it.’
That's the message we wanted.

VOA: You mentioned just in that answer “repercussions” not just here in the United States but around the world. Of course CPJ is a global organization. Tell us your concerns if any about whatever may be happening here in the United States, land of the First Amendment, that may be being watched by other countries whose leaders may begin to kind of pick up a similar mantle of taking jabs at the media.

Simon: I would say that our concern about the kind of rhetoric that Trump is using against the media is damaging and undermining as it is in this country. I mention that I don't think most journalists are deterred. They're going to go out and do their job because they have legal protections because they have institutional protection.

It's become more difficult. But the journalists are are doing their job and some of them are doing amazing work. We have to recognize that. But around the world is where we're really seeing the damage because this kind of rhetoric is being adopted and deployed by authoritarian leaders. The fake news framing, the enemy of the people framing, countries around the world are actually passing laws criminalizing fake news.

We're seeing more journalists around the world imprisoned on tape whose  charges when Trump meets with other heads of states and they have a media availability and Trump jokes you know to air to Erdogan or Urban  or  Modi or any of these other leaders or Imran Khan of Pakistan that ‘you don't have it as bad as I do’ and they laugh and they chuckle.

Those leaders when they go home, they feel emboldened. They feel that they will not be under pressure from the United States. They feel justified in their repressive policies. And we see a corresponding increase of pressure on journalists. So we're very concerned about the global impact of that rhetoric, and we feel that it emboldens authoritarian and repressive leaders to crack down further.