TOPICS > World

By murder, prison and rhetoric, here’s how the global free press is being suppressed

May 3, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Journalists around the world sometimes risk death or imprisonment to inform the public. In Mexico, dozens have been killed by drug cartels, the Turkish government has been cracking down by closing newspapers and locking up reporters, and U.S. reporters are enduring accusations of “fake news.” Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists joins William Brangham to discuss attacks on freedom.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Sometimes, searching for the truth is dangerous work.

Journalists around the world at times risk death or imprisonment to inform the public.

Twenty-four years ago, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed May 3 Press Freedom Day. So, we mark this moment by assessing where things stand.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s often where you report that determines the level of threat that a journalist faces.

In Mexico, dozens have been killed by cartels while reporting on the drug trade. In Turkey, it’s the government that’s been cracking down, closing newspapers and locking up reporters. And here in the U.S., it’s more of a rhetorical attack, with accusations of fake news, and the president questioning the motives and honesty of the press.

We look at this global landscape now with Joel Simon. He’s executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Welcome to the NewsHour, Joel.

JOEL SIMON, Committee to Protect Journalists: Great to be on.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s go through some of these global hot spots that we have been talking about.

Your organization just put out a report about Mexico and some of the violence directed at journalists there. What’s going on?

JOEL SIMON: What’s going on is, you have a country where the government is effectively unable to assert control because violent forces are dominant.

And they are determining, through violence, what the people can and can’t know. They’re killing journalists. They’re suppressing information, and they often operate with the complicity of the police and local authorities.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In a circumstance like that, where you’re talking about basically criminal organizations killing journalists, what can we, as the journalistic community, do to protect people in that environment?

JOEL SIMON: Well, I think, first of all, we have to call on the Mexican government. They have a constitutional obligation to ensure that Mexicans are able to exercise free expression, that the press can operate freely.

And, in fact, we have confirmed a meeting tomorrow with the president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto. We released a report this week. We met today with journalists in Veracruz, one of the more violent states in the country. And we are going to call on the president to do all within his power to ensure that those responsible for these crimes are brought to justice and not protected and are not able to operate with impunity.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, murdering journalists is obviously one end of a very awful spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have other nations, nations like Turkey, that are trying to suppress journalism in a very different way.

JOEL SIMON: Yes.

I think, if, in Mexico, the problem is that you have a very weak state that is unable to assert authority and protect the rights of its citizens, in Turkey, you have sort of the opposite problem. You have a state that’s becoming increasingly autocratic, led by a leader who has launched a consolidated crackdown on all of civil society, including the media, following an aborted coup.

But this is a long-term trend in Turkey, the sort of consolidation and strengthening of state power and the suppression of critical voices. And Turkey is actually the world’s leading jailer of journalists. There were 81 journalists in jail when we completed our annual census at the end of last year.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Again, in that circumstance, when you have got a very strong government doing this, is this the role of other Western pro-journalistic governments to put pressure on Turkey to stop this kind of behavior?

JOEL SIMON: Absolutely.

I think a very critical voice is missing, and that’s the United States. That’s — that’s President Trump. And, certainly, the U.S. press freedom record has not been perfect, and certainly they have not exercised this influence as fully as they might, and we have been critical of that.

But we think they have tremendous influence. The U.S. has been a defender of these values, because they represent values that are so deeply essential to our political system.

But President Trump has welcomed to the White House President El-Sisi of Egypt. He said he was doing a fantastic job, when, in fact, he’s jailing journalists, 25 journalists in prison in Egypt. He’s rolled up out the red carpet for President Xi of China, dozens of journalists in jail there. And he has failed confront President Erdogan. In fact, he’s been quite complimentary of Erdogan.

And so this is a key voice on behalf of journalists and press freedom that’s missing right now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s talk a little bit about President Trump in this country.

I mean, obviously, we still have a very strong, a very free and vibrant press in the United States. But the president, as you well know, constantly is hurling this accusation of fake news.

JOEL SIMON: Yes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He’s accused journalists of being enemies of the people.

What do you make of all that rhetoric?

JOEL SIMON: Well, I think — I think there are so many ways to — this has been a big topic of discussion, and there are so many things that I think President Trump is trying to achieve.

One is changing the subject sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable story. One is sort of rallying a base that’s — that’s — that has a very low — low view of the role of the media, and they might be responsive to that kind of criticism.

But I think — but journalists themselves, if you talk to journalists in Washington, they really don’t like this kind of language. They’re threatened by it and are not at all sanguine.

But they’re able to do their job. They’re able to resist this kind of chilling pressure. I think where the damage is most acute is actually in the rest of the world, where autocratic leaders like Erdogan in Turkey, or Sisi in Egypt, feel emboldened by this kind of framing that journalists are enemies, that journalists provide fake news.

I mean, really, that’s not the way the leader of the democratic world talks. That’s the kind of rhetoric you hear from repressive leaders. And so it’s very disturbing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, do you think in the end that this may be a galvanizing moment for the American press to have — to have this sort of very aggressive attack from the highest office in the land?

JOEL SIMON: Well, it’s galvanizing for the moment, but I don’t think we should declare victory. I think we have to be very cognizant.

You know, it’s a war of words now. And the words, you know, can be resisted. And journalists certainly feel, you know, they have a critical role. They feel there’s more public support.

Ironically, every time the president attacks the media, you see subscriptions rise in the media outlets he’s attacking. He’s also obsessed with the media. So, journalists, bizarrely, ironically, feel that they have more influence in a certain way, because the president is watching or reading everything they say.

So, you know, journalists don’t yet feel chilled by this kind of speech, but I think there’s a real danger that this chilling speech leads to policies, and that those policies have a real impact on the ability of journalists to do their job. And that’s why we need to be vigilant.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists, thank you very much.

JOEL SIMON: Thank you.

SHARE VIA TEXT