Because a free press is vital to democracy, autocratic actors, be they state or nonstate, often attempt to silence journalists. Some methods are high-tech, such as blocking websites. Some are traditional, such as censorship and disinformation. And in an ominous number of cases, some are through violent intimidation, including murder.
“Once upon a time, journalists walked through like a member of the Red Cross — although even now members of the Red Cross are targeted — and now they’re not collateral damage any more, they’re targets. That’s something new and very disturbing,” said Richard Stengel, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. It’s also why press freedom is the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center Great Decisions dialogue.
Stengel, a former managing editor of Time, put these times into perspective. “It’s kind of a cruel irony that at a time when there is more information available to more people than any time in history, some countries are narrowing the availability of that information, not allowing access to the free media or media that criticizes the government,” he said.
America recognizes that journalism is the “currency of democracy,” Stengel said. But what about the rest of the world — and the impact of intimidation on essential policy debates here at home? “It worries me that the repression of journalists, imprisonment of journalists, the impunity of crimes against journalists, will create less reliable, fact-based truthful journalism around the world that I think Americans need to see.”
It worries media freedom organizations, too. So it was particularly encouraging that last Monday’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists was met with a call from Reporters Without Borders for the United Nations to create a position of special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for the safety of journalists.
“We think it’s time for concrete actions,” said Delphine Halgand, U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders. “The U.N. has so many resolutions to condemn crimes against journalists, and now we want to force member states to comply with their obligation under international law.”
Such a fundamental ideal would ideally have U.N. unanimity, but because so many governments are complicit in press repression or contribute to the impunity, it will be difficult. And any vote would likely fare better with the General Assembly than the Security Council, since permanent members Russia and China also seem to permanently land on lists of most-press-repressive nations.
The State Department recognizes the global challenges and is taking a “belts-and-suspenders approach,” said Stengel. Among its strategies is blunt talk (what diplomats often soften as a “frank exchange”), as well an annual “Free the Press” campaign that highlights cases of jailed journalists. Additional steps include convening a conference of media institutions and war correspondents to work together to boost the safety of journalists, as well as drafting protocols on how to help journalists caught in crises.
Other proactive programs bring international journalists to the U.S. Stengel called the State Department’s Edward R. Murrow program the “jewel in the crown.” Locally, global journalists — including a delegation from South Asia just this week — are hosted by the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Minnesota International Center as part of the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program.
The local connection gives credence to Halgand’s call that “we all have to do something about this.” And, encouragingly, the fact that this scourge is a U.N. agenda item shows that progress just might be possible.
“It’s a pretty concerning situation, but we are seeing a rare momentum on the understanding of these threats and these targets of free information, so I think we have a real opportunity right now,” Halgand said.
The State Department, the Obama administration and every 2016 candidate should recognize this rare momentum and push to end impunity for crimes against journalists. On this much they should all agree: There are no free societies without a free press.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.