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Detention, injury, even death: the price of a free press

Journalists risk their lives to tell us what we must know to preserve democracy and to stand up when our rights are threatened.

Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to silence his coverage of Saudi human rights abuses.
Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to silence his coverage of Saudi human rights abuses.
REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

Daniel Pearl, an American, was beheaded by al-Qaida in Pakistan for reporting on the organization’s terrorist activities.

Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to silence his coverage of Saudi human rights abuses.

Marie Colvin, an American writer for a British newspaper, was murdered in Syria by an IED to stop her coverage of the Syrian government’s brutal crimes against its own citizens.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was blown up by a car bomb in Malta for publishing stories about Malta’s corrupt government.

Trina Slavina, editor of a Russian news website, died after setting herself on fire to protest Russian media and internet censorship.

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It’s easier – and quicker — to kill the story by killing the journalists than by any other means.

Reporters around the world work at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. They use radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and the internet to sound the alarm about human rights abuses from genocide to terrorism, from sexual violence to civil war, from growing pandemic inequalities to climate catastrophes.

Too many journalists pay with their lives – or their freedom.

Amal Habbani of Sudan has been jailed and tortured 15 times by Sudanese authorities for speaking out on police abuse. She writes that “it was like being alive in a grave.”

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Maria Ressa in the Philippines was arrested for ‘cyber libel’ for her reporting about President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous regime. She was found guilty and was sentenced to 100 years in jail.

Omar Jimenez of CNN covered demonstrations in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. Jimenez was arrested and jailed in Minneapolis despite telling officers that he was with CNN and showing his press pass. He wasn’t released until CNN President Jeff Zucker called Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz directly to insist on his release.

A free press is the watchdog of the government.

Experts tell us that democracy is declining in countries all over the world – including the United States.

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According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy has four fundamental elements: a system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active and full participation of the people in politics and civic life; the protection of the human rights of all citizens; and the equal application of the rule of law to all citizens. 

Democratic backsliding is threatening democracy.

Backsliding means breaking down democratic institutions from within. This is especially dangerous because the breakdowns are legitimized through the very institutions that ought to protect democratic values.  How does this backsliding happen?

  • Free and fair elections are degraded.
  • Political parties get elected and weaken the democratic institutions that protect human rights.
  • Freedom of the press is suppressed to prevent challenges to the government.
  • The separation of powers breaks down. The executive branch imposes controls on the legislative and judicial branches and consolidates power. 

Journalists risk their lives to tell us what we must know to preserve democracy and to stand up when our rights are threatened.
Since May, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented more than 600 attacks on reporters who were covering protests across more than 70 U.S. cities.

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In Bayeux, France, the War Reporters’ Memorial Garden honors more than 2,000 journalists from all over the world who have been killed since 1944 in their service to truth and to raising awareness of mass atrocities happening to innocent people around the world.

Violence against reporters is on the rise everywhere.

How important is a free press? 

To what extent should people put themselves and others at risk to expose injustice and corruption? And, most important, what can each of us do to promote a free press?

These issues will be aired when World Without Genocide hosts “The Global Decline of Democracy, Human Rights, and Freedom of the Press” on Thursday, Oct. 22, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. via Zoom. Kerry Paterson from the Committee to Protect Journalists will be the featured speaker.  The program is open to the public.  Registration is required by Oct. 20. 

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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