Jour­nal­ism un­der fire: Here, there and ev­ery­where

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ASANTA FE, N.M. t the begin­ning of this year, I tried to take stock of the predica­ment faced by the world’s jour­nal­ists. I noted that 2017 had been the most dan­ger­ous year for re­porters in re­cent mem­ory and pre­dicted that the year to come would likely be worse. It wasn’t a hard guess to make since all signs pointed in that di­rec­tion. But there was no way that I, or any­one else, could have fore­seen just how bad 2018 would be­come.

A mass shoot­ing of jour­nal­ists in an Amer­i­can news­room. The mur­der of a Post con­tribut­ing columnist in­side a con­sulate by agents of a U.S.-al­lied gov­ern­ment. Two Reuters re­porters jailed in Myan­mar with the ap­par­ent ap­proval of the once-li­on­ized Aung San Suu Kyi. Dozens of re­porters killed for their work and hun­dreds more im­pris­oned. That is how the state of jour­nal­ism in 2018 will be re­mem­bered.

Santa Fe might not seem like the ob­vi­ous place to convene for a dis­cus­sion about this trend. Yet here we were this week, at a unique gath­er­ing of jour­nal­ists from around the world — more than 40 coun­tries were rep­re­sented — to dis­cuss jour­nal­ism un­der threat. Make no mis­take: This is one of the most con­se­quen­tial chal­lenges fac­ing free so­ci­eties.

A year ago, the hosts of the con­fer­ence were start­ing to plan their ma­jor event for the com­ing year. Out of a field of some very press­ing is­sues, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween jour­nal­ism and democ­racy stood out.

“Once we’d sur­veyed the na­tional land­scape and talked to our lo­cal me­dia con­tacts, the de­ci­sion to fo­cus on jour­nal­ism seemed im­per­a­tive,” said Sandy Camp­bell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Santa Fe Coun­cil on In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and or­ga­nizer of the four-day Jour­nal­ism Un­der Fire event.

It’s a clear in­di­ca­tion that com­mu­ni­ties out­side of our big­gest coastal cities are acutely aware of the loom­ing crises fac­ing the press, as smaller lo­cal news­pa­pers fold or are ab­sorbed into large con­glom­er­ates, and sto­ries from these com­mu­ni­ties fade from pub­lic view.

Bring­ing to­gether so many jour­nal­ists from places where in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing faces such ob­vi­ous threats of­fers a re­minder of what is on the line.

Con­sider In­dia. There are more news­pa­per read­ers there than there are cit­i­zens of the United States — yet In­dia, the world’s largest democ­racy, has also recorded among the high­est num­ber of mur­dered jour­nal­ists this year.

While the U.S. pres­i­dent makes clear his con­tempt for the press at home and his un­in­ter­est in hu­man rights abroad, gov­ern­ments around the world have taken ad­van­tage of Wash­ing­ton’s pas­siv­ity. They use the flim­si­est of ex­cuses — un­sub­stan­ti­ated threats to na­tional se­cu­rity are a par­tic­u­lar fa­vorite — to keep hon­est jour­nal­ists be­hind bars, with­out due process, for years on end.

Here at home, re­porters are barred from ad­mis­sion to the White House for ask­ing a crit­i­cal ques­tion, or threat­ened by mobs at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies, or gunned down in their news­room. Of all the places where free ex­pres­sion has suf­fered most, the big­gest tragedy may be that we’re fail­ing to ad­e­quately pro­tect what should be val­ued as our most trea­sured right.

The sto­ries all have unique vari­ables, and they take place con­ti­nents apart, but this is no dis­con­nected prob­lem. Rather, it’s a sign of these times. And if we’re not vig­i­lant, it will only get worse.

From the at­ten­dees at this con­fer­ence I heard har­row­ing ac­counts un­likely to go re­ported any­where else. Brave re­porters such as Jenni Monet, who writes about indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the United States. When she was em­bed­ded at Stand­ing Rock in 2017, Monet was ar­rested while re­port­ing on demon­stra­tions there. The La­guna Pue­blo jour­nal­ist spent a night in jail and many months in a pro­tracted le­gal case in North Dakota to clear her name. Or Ar­bana Xharra, a jour­nal­ist from Kosovo who — de­spite be­ing beaten to the point of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and sub­jected to re­peated death threats — con­tin­ues to write about the seem­ingly end­less trou­bles fac­ing the Balkan re­gion, both home­grown and im­posed from abroad.

Such cases might seem re­mote from our ex­pe­ri­ence, but that’s no longer as true as it might have been once. We’re liv­ing in a mo­ment when they could hap­pen just about any­where.

But it is deeply en­cour­ag­ing to see hun­dreds of en­gaged Santa Fe res­i­dents turn­ing out to dis­cuss these is­sues and ask ques­tions about how we re­port the news, what ev­ery cit­i­zen can do to pro­tect and pro­mote free ex­pres­sion, and why it mat­ters to the fu­ture of democ­racy.

“I hope the event will raise sig­nif­i­cant aware­ness about the range of threats that jour­nal­ists face as prox­ies for pur­su­ing and dis­cov­er­ing the truth,” Camp­bell told me.

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