Bankole: Why press freedom matters in 2018

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The past year has seen withering attacks on the media from the highest office in the land. The unrelenting assaults on the credibility of journalists and news organizations was never as pronounced in previous years. And that’s problematic because this nation has always prided itself as a fearless defender of press freedom, which journalists in other nations long for and admire about the United States.

In fact, our penchant for jealously guarding freedom of the press — a constitutionally protected provision — has been one of the strongest tools the U.S. State Department has used over the years as leverage over nations that take pride in imprisoning journalists to adhere to the dictates of the rule of law.

But today that leverage is slipping away because we are losing the distinction of being the paragon of press freedom when reporters and their work are often publicly dismissed and ridiculed as “fake news” by Donald Trump, the current U.S. president.

In the eyes of the world, such attempts to discredit the media occurred only in dictatorships or in nations where repressive governments have declared the press as the No. 1 enemy of the people.

And what is currently happening in the United States helps embolden those nations, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based media watchdog group, warns in its latest report.

“The international community has done little to isolate repressive countries and U.S. President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric and insistence on labeling critical media ‘fake news’ serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists. CPJ’s 2017 census found the number of journalists jailed for “false news” doubled this year, to 21 cases,” the report adds.

The report noted, “As of Dec. 1, 2017, CPJ found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, an increase on last year’s historical high of 259. Turkey is again the worst jailer, with 73 journalists imprisoned for their work as the country continues its press freedom crackdown. China and Egypt again take the second and third spot, with 41 and 20 cases respectively. The worst three jailers are responsible for jailing 134 or 51 percent of the total.”

Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ, condemns these attacks.

“In a just society, no journalist should ever be imprisoned for their work and reporting critically, but 262 are paying that price,” Simon said. “It is shameful that for the second year in a row, a record number of journalists are behind bars. Countries that jail journalists for what they publish are violating international law and must be held accountable.”

“The fact that repressive governments are not paying a price for throwing journalists in jail represents a failure of the international community.”

As a key part of the international community, the United States has to set an example. That means there has to be a consistent effort nationwide to defend reporters who come under character assassination tactics for doing their job.

The work of the press can be daunting and tedious, even dangerous. The profession also is one of the few that can directly hold the most powerful accountable and call out those who spew hate to divide communities.

Because the press remains an integral part of a democracy, it cannot give up its sacred role of shining light where there is wrong and exposing those who would abuse taxpayer dollars and engage in a breach of the public trust.

In 2018, journalists must stand firm as the attacks on them and their institutions will not decrease. Protecting democracy and promoting good governance requires the media to remain on guard. And a free and independent media is a cornerstone of any democratic society.

With the technological revolution taking place, people are demanding to know what is happening in their communities and to their government.

In turn, journalists must continue to tell the stories that separate fact from fiction because no enlightened society should fall for the dubious and dangerous notion of post-truth.

Happy new year.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.