Shortly after 7 a.m. last Thursday, in the northern Mexico city of Chihuahua, newspaper correspondent Miroslava Breach, 54, was shot eight times as she left home in a car with one of her three children. The child was uninjured; Breach died on the way to the hospital. She was the third journalist killed in Mexico this month.
It is not unusual for Mexican reporters and editors to be attacked; 35 journalists have been killed for their work in Mexico over the past 25 years. But Mexico is just the 8th deadliest place to practice journalism. It’s more dangerous in Russia, Brazil, Somalia, Colombia, Algeria, the Philippines and Iraq. Of those who died, 80 percent were covering politics or corruption, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Murder is only the most extreme peril facing journalists. A record 259 journalists were jailed at the end of last year. Locking up reporters is an effective job preservation strategy for an authoritarian ruler.
As dictatorship depends upon information control, democracy demands an informed citizenry. As The Washington Post’s new slogan puts it, “Democracy dies in darkness.”
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Over the last quarter-century, the United States, as the globe’s leading advocate for human rights, has often stepped in to urge other nations to respect the role of a free press. Because of American intervention, some journalists have been freed from prison and others have been able to escape, usually quite reluctantly, into exile.
Last spring, then-Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on World Press Freedom Day, noted that at the heart of a lot of turbulence around the world was a struggle between truth and outright lies. He cited Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and North Korea, in particular.
“You will see in all of those places… a fundamental battle to define reality,” Kerry said. “And you will see efforts by some people to invent out of whole cloth or to obscure the truth, the facts - to cover up events that did happen and make up stories about things that didn’t.” But then Kerry went on to make a promise that it turns out he can’t keep: He said the United States would never stop speaking out - both in public and behind the scenes - on behalf of journalists who have been threatened, kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned.
That sounds almost quaint now, in an era when the president of the United States labels journalists as “enemies of the people,” and eggs on supporters at rallies as they yell angry insults at reporters.
We’re not at a point in America where reporters are being shot for their work, or locked up for questioning the nation’s leader. But we’re also not at the point where we were a year ago, when America held the global high ground on freedom of speech.
What has been lost in these months of brutal media-bashing is the moral authority of the United States to speak on behalf of free speech everywhere - because our own leaders are demonstrating little respect for its exercise here, not to mention indifference to the authority of facts.
Anybody in a leadership role, from a middle school coach to a corporate CEO, understands the value of leading by example.
Trump’s tone clearly has been mimicked by his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, who made a trip to Asia this month that he tried to shroud in secrecy. Unlike his predecessors dating to the Nixon administration, he refused to allow reporters to fly with him (except for one friendly digital reporter) .
As The Boston Globe’s Indira Lakshmanan noted, “Maybe the real story is that Trump and Tillerson fear criticism from independent media and career diplomats and want to keep reporters away from officials who might share candid insights at the hotel bar.”
If the secretary of state can ditch the media to keep citizens from knowing what he’s doing, why shouldn’t a governor, or a mayor, or a state legislator?
And if America’s government displays contempt for a free press, who will have standing to urge more authoritarian states to behave any differently? How will we keep such darkness from falling all over the globe?
Thankfully, we American journalists don’t fear for our lives. But the tone at the top is an ugly, mean one, and we do, indeed, fear its potential consequences.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union of Albany, N.Y.
New York Times News Service