The Fight for a Free Press Makes Us All Safer

Posted by Thomas A. Shannon

A vibrant, free, and independent press is a staple of any open society. But today freedom of the press is purposefully and systematically challenged on every continent. It is steadily dismantled by governments that fear the free flow of information, block websites, stifle civil society, and deny access to journalists. It is manipulated by authorities who bury the truth in campaigns of falsehoods and fabrications.  And it is silenced with deadly precision by those who jail, kidnap, torture, or murder journalists with impunity.

man with camera
A journalist sets up his camera under a sunshade. (©AP Images)

The safety and freedom of the press is something that the United States takes incredibly seriously, because of the indispensable role the press plays in the healthy functioning of our own democracy.

That is why it was a privilege for the United States to host the World News Media Congress and Editors Forum in Washington last week, the first time we have done so in 20 years. This year the Forum honored journalists killed in the line of duty with the Golden Pen of Freedom Award — a stark reminder that freedom of press comes at a very steep price. Attacks on journalists anywhere are heinous acts designed to corrode the freedoms on which democracy stands.

The past three years have been the most deadly period on record for journalists — especially local reporters. Nearly 80 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict alone, and others are still missing — many of them local correspondents, whose tremendous courage has helped expose the atrocities committed by the Assad regime on a daily basis.

What is hardest to bear about crimes against journalists is that they strike those whose insights and perspectives we need the most — those who fight to preserve the freedom of expression where it is under greatest threat. It is no coincidence that those who pervert the truth also place a low premium on the safety of journalists who pursue it.

As free societies, we draw our strength from confronting the truth of our own imperfections — by relying on journalists to hold us to the highest aspirations, even when, especially when, we fall short. The responsibility is a serious one.

And in less free societies, its absence is devastating. The Russian government’s egregious campaign of disinformation that aims to hide the existence of Russian troops in Crimea and to deny the truth of Russia’s command and control of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine shows us what happens when journalists aren’t able to operate freely and hold governments to account. In this haze of deceit, it is the ability, instinct, and skepticism of journalists that helps bring reality back into focus and exerts a powerful voice of reason, integrity, and truth. A world of a world in which there is no truth — and where the most egregious lies are accepted as fact — disintegrates rapidly under the magnifying glass of good journalism.  The role of journalists is critically important, and we all must do more to ensure that both the mission and safety of journalists are safeguarded and supported.

And that means ensuring that citizens have the right to engage in the free exchange of ideas, and journalists have the freedom to seek the truth. To that end, the United States is investing in a rising generation of new media professionals worldwide through programs that examine the essential role that the press plays in democratic societies; and through resource centers to help keep local journalists safe and prepare for emergencies and by providing assistance to embattled independent media in more than 30 countries.

It is the important task of journalists not only to separate fact from fiction, but to reach audiences that don’t have the means to discern the difference for themselves. It is a task that requires both physical and moral courage — and it is not something that others easily understand. Armed with no more than a pen, a camera, or a smart phone, the press stands up against repression with no means of defense except the virtue of their profession.

About the Author: Thomas A. Shannon serves as the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State.