Since the numbers started being tallied decades ago, there have never been more journalists behind bars around the world than there are right now. And so far this year, at least 40 journalists have been killed - some caught in crossfire, others quite clearly murdered because of their work.
Thank goodness that doesn’t happen here in the United States, you may say - because, after all, our Constitution assures all Americans the right to freely write and speak our minds. But how secure are our First Amendment rights, really?
That question loomed over a New York City dinner this week that raised money for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which works to defend journalists’ rights worldwide, mostly in countries that don’t have the tradition of a free press that we’ve enjoyed. Now the work must be “closer to home,” noted the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, as he started the evening program.
It was a swell dinner, a time for many of us to see old friends and feel good about the global fight for freedom. But nobody could shake the sense that there has been a shifting of the ground in the United States. Journalists aren’t being jailed or assassinated in America, but we’re not deaf to the complaints of those who question whether all this press freedom is such a good thing.
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“The advocates for limiting that freedom have made their feelings known,” Remnick said. “We have all heard the anti-media rhetoric, the attacks on journalists and the exclusion of reporters viewed as ‘unfriendly' during the presidential campaign.”
Most of us who work in the news media believe that without the five rights safeguarded in the First Amendment - freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, and the right to petition the government and to assemble - everything else would be at risk.
But the notion that the First Amendment works for all of us is too often lost on citizens who think journalists use it as a shield. The day after the CPJ dinner, I was scolded on a blog for last week’s column defending American watchdog journalism.
“Either you do your job and give Americans information without bias,” one critic wrote, “or you will lose your privileged position in American society.”
Another writer urged “a probationary period” for the American media.
But there is no special privilege for the press beyond what everybody in this country enjoys. And a “probationary period” sounds like a call for the government to step in - until what happens, exactly? Until all journalism reflects the views of the government, perhaps, or maybe the views of the winner of the last presidential race? (By the way: Would that be the winner of the majority of votes cast, or the projected winner of the Electoral College vote?)
I don’t mean to sound like a whiner. You feel pretty humble in the company of the brave journalists from around the world who were given awards at the CPJ dinner this year. The threats they face are real every day.
There was Can Dundar from Turkey, editor of the daily Cumhuriyet, who faces six years in prison because of a story alleging that trucks belonging to Turkey were used to smuggle arms to Syrian rebel groups. That sounds like basic investigative reporting in this country, but it brought the wrath of the Turkish president down on Dundar.
There was Oscar Martinez of El Salvador, who got death threats after he wrote stories alleging police had killed eight gang members. Now he is afraid to take his 3-year-old daughter to public parks.
There was Malini Subramaniam of India, who has been harassed by police for her reporting from Bastar, the center of the conflict between Maoist groups and security forces.
Not present at the dinner was the freelance photographer known as Shawkan. He has been in a Cairo prison for three years. Egypt, like Turkey, has become a place where a once-thriving press is no longer free.
Those four journalists are targets of a lot more than angry tweets and blog posts. Yet we could not escape the concern voiced by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who noted that Donald Trump’s first tweet after he became president-elect was to complain about “professional protesters incited by the media.”
It’s a pattern, she said, that she has seen often before.
“First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating - until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages…”. You get the idea.
I hope such concerns are overblown. But whether or not you like what you see on TV or read in the newspaper, know this: the First Amendment is for all of us. Attacks on press freedom are attacks on all Americans’ freedom.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at http://blog.timesunion.com/editors.