According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, more than a third of Americans can’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (check your knowledge here). So, perhaps it’s not surprising that we are seeing a rise in negative sentiment and action against the press here in the U.S. Yet press freedom is essential to a democracy. The public must be informed so that they can actively participate in the governance of their community and country.
In his opening remarks at a press freedom event co-hosted on September 13rd by the Newseum Institute, Reporters Without Borders, and Digital Content Next, Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry remarked on the average American’s lack of familiarity with many of the foundational principals of our government. It is easy, he suggested, to become complacent and shirk the obligations that come with democracy.
“Rights are inextricably intertwined with responsibility,” Rep. Fortenberry said. He reinforced the need for individuals to take an active role in government, but also pointed to the responsibility of the media to represent the interests of all Americans and varied viewpoints in order to meet their responsibility to inform the public.
The road to destruction
Panelist and former editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Zaman Abdülhamit Bilici described the disintegration of the free press in his country and offered a disturbing roadmap for how government-initiated negativity toward the press can lead to a catastrophic outcome. His paper’s coverage of the Turkish Ministry attracted the ire of President Tayyip Erdogan, who began to publicly malign the publication. When that failed to silence them, he denied their reporters access to press conferences. Then came calls to fire journalists and threats to those who advertised in Zaman. When these efforts failed to change the coverage, Bilici says that “Erdogan had to use the nuclear option.”
The Turkish President enlisted the court system to help the government take control of the paper and initiated a police raid on the headquarters. Tear gas and water cannons were used to quell protests against governmental control of the media. Newseum Institute COO Gene Policinski pointed out that Turkey was once viewed as a beacon of hope for democracy in the Middle East. “Turkey was not a perfect democracy, but it was on the way,” said Bilici. His careful breakdown of the dismantling of press freedom in his country and how it sped up destruction of its budding democracy was certainly a warning to all in the room.
Fight for your rights
Another panelist, Tim Crews, editor/publisher of The Sacramento Valley Mirror, said that his journalists have been threatened on numerous occasions both online and in person. He has also experienced censorship and an uneven application of the law when it comes to prosecuting those who threaten or assault members of his staff.
Ethiopian journalist Simegnish Y. Mengesha, has seen many colleagues imprisoned “for doing their jobs.” She said that we must remain vigilant in protecting our rights because undermining press freedom “is a gradual process, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mengesha also sees that the danger goes beyond the threats to journalists themselves. “People are afraid to talk to the media; they are afraid to use their own social media accounts [to discuss news].” This, she says, strips citizens of their basic right to being informed about what is going on in their own country.
Governments in different parts of the world have shown a willingness to block social media platforms and even shut down the internet to stem the spread of information, as Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for Reporters Without Borders pointed out. She also noted the disturbing pattern of harassment, doxing, and outright threats made to journalists via social media channels.
Another alarming trend Ewan has observed is that “The authoritarian strong man model of government seems to be sneaking it into places we didn’t expect to find it.”
Lead by example
Bilici sees an unnerving parallel between what happened in Turkey and trends in America. In both cases, he said, “a popular elected person is putting pressure on the media.” Policinski from The Newseum reminded the audience that here, our President refers to the press as “enemies of the people.” And, as Ewen pointed out, the administration’s anti-press stance has a negative effect on journalists in other countries although she noted “I have to keep reminding myself that this didn’t happen overnight.”
“An important question we should ask ourselves,” said Bilici, “Is why isn’t the media getting the support from the public when we claim to speak in their name?”
Rep. Fortenberry said the media must carefully consider its diminished estimation in the eyes of the public. “There’s cynicism toward the institutions that uphold the idea of press freedom.” He called upon members of the press to support “an authentic dialog and public service for the good of community.”
Indeed, the participants—speakers, panelists, and attendees of Press Freedom: Lessons Learned From Around The World—would all agree that open discussion is essential to shoring up this key aspect of equitable government here and abroad. Yet even as the event was being arranged, Mexican journalist Martin Mendez Pineda, who has received death threats for his work, was denied a visa to participate. According to Ewen, the program was not deemed “important enough” to allow him to enter the United States.