Pope Francis at his weekly audience in the Vatican.
Pope Francis at his weekly audience in the Vatican.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis paid tribute on Saturday to journalists killed while doing their jobs, saying media freedom is a key indicator of a country's health.

In an address to the Foreign Press Association in Italy, he urged journalists to shun fake news and continue reporting on the plight of people who no longer make headlines but are still suffering, specifically mentioning the Rohingya and Yazidi.

"I listened in pain to the statistics about your colleagues killed while carrying out their work with courage and dedication in so many countries to report on what is happening in wars and other dramatic situations in which so many of our brothers and sisters in the world live," he said.

Francis had just heard the association's president, Patricia Thomas of Associated Press Television, talk about journalists killed, imprisoned, wounded or threatened in their line of work.

She mentioned Lyra Mckee, who was shot dead while covering a riot in Northern Ireland, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who died in a car bomb in 2017, and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

"Freedom of the press and of expression is an important indicator of the state of a country's health," the pope said. "Let's not forget that one of the first things dictatorships do is remove freedom of the press or mask it, not leaving it free."

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Francis did not mention any countries in his address to about 400 members of the foreign media and their families.

"We need journalists who are on the side of victims, on the side of those who are persecuted, on the side of who is excluded, cast aside, discriminated against," he said.

In an apparent reference to the media's role in investigating the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis, Francis said: "The Church holds you in esteem, also when you put your finger in a wound, even if the wound is in the Church community."

Francis urged the media to not lose interest in tragedies even when they no longer make headlines. "Who is talking about the Rohingya today? Who is talking about the Yazidi today? They have been forgotten and they continue to suffer," he said.

Nearly one million Rohingya Muslims from mostly Buddhist Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh, most following a Myanmar military-led crackdown in 2017 that U.N. investigators have said was conducted with "genocidal intent". Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of atrocities.

Two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after they were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act walked free from prison earlier this month after more than 500 days behind bars.

Reuters has said the two men did not commit any crime and had called for their release. They were released under a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners.

Islamic State militants in Iraq shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the minority Yazidi religion, in what the United Nations has called a genocidal campaign against them.