At 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 even 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. ally 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, New Mexico, might not seem like the obvious place to convene for a discussion about this trend. Yet here we are this week, at a unique gathering of journalists from around the world – more than 40 countries are represented – to discuss journalism under threat. For make no mistake: This is one of the most consequential challenges facing free societies today.
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,” says 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’s 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 disinterest 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 is 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 f
ce as proxies for pursuing and discovering the truth,” Campbell told me.