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The War on Journalists Here and Abroad Continues

The War on Journalists Here and Abroad Continues

Being a journalist is not an easy job these days. In addition to President Trump’s charges of fake news and banning reporters from his press conferences who he disagrees with, the dangers of reporting around the world continue. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that a record number of 262 reporters were jailed around the world and 42 journalists were killed. Turkey, China and Egypt led the list while Mexico leads the world in most journalists killed, due to the horrific drug war to the south of our border.

President Donald Trump waged a fierce battle against the media to discredit journalists, often using words to incite violence against reporters. According to CPJ, many countries have used Trump’s rhetoric, charging media outlets with “fake news” to embolden their fight against a free press that is critical of the government.

About three-quarters of journalists in prison around the world are based on anti-state charges, such as terrorism, Maria Salazar-Ferro, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Emergencies Department, told Democracy Now.

“This kind of rhetoric coming out of President Trump can embolden (authoritarian governments), in terms of jailing journalists who are critical of their governments,” Salazar-Ferro said.

The assassination of Mexican investigative journalist Javier Valdez Cardenas last year sparked outrage that led to a 24-hour strike by many Mexican digital media companies who refused to publish anything but a black banner with the names of the many Mexican journalists who have been killed.

“I have been a journalist these past 21 years, and never before have I suffered or enjoyed it this intensely, nor with so many dangers,” Cardenas told CPJ when he received an award from them before his murder. “In Culiacan, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, it is dangerous to be alive. And to do journalism is to tread an invisible line drawn by the bad guys, who are in drug trafficking and in the government, in a field strewn with explosives. This is what most of the country is living through. One must protect oneself from everything and everyone. And there do not seem to be options or salvation, and often there is no one to turn to.”

The killers of Cardenas and the other journalists have not been captured, giving the murderers of reporters near impunity. The government always says it will investigate and then nothing happens.

The same scenario played out in Russia when I reported in the 1990s where many journalists were killed and none of their assassins were found.

Russia was identified in a 2016 report by the International News Safety Institute as one of the five most dangerous places to work as a journalist, along with Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia has had a number of high-profile journalist killings, including Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 on the day of Putin’s birthday. However, the most dangerous period to report in Russia was before Putin became president.

The problem today is Putin controls the media.

“It goes without saying that over the past few years the atmosphere for journalists has become more and more poisonous,” said Stephen Wilson, a free-lance journalist based in Moscow. “Apart from Novaya Gazeta and a few online sites, there is virtually no serious critical journalism. I can’t recall the last time I read an article critical of Putin in Russia’s mainline media. Practically all the articles you read are praising the local mayor or president. Journalists who have written critical articles have been threatened, been doused in green paint and attacked by thugs.”

Fred Weir, who reports for the Christian Science Monitor in Moscow, told Chicago News that it is difficult to be a journalist at one of the opposition media outlets. However, he said a lot of young Russian journalists tend to be pro-Putin, anti-American and supporters of Kremlin foreign policy. He said there’s more criticism in the press about domestic politics, especially on economic matters.

But when Americans look at this question, he said, they usually want to see opposition to things like the annexation of Crimea, Russian policy in Ukraine and Syria, as evidence of genuine ‘independence’ and ‘opposition.’

“It’s easy to look at Russia in a simplistic way, but it’s really not the USSR anymore, but a far more complex and diverse society,” he wrote. “Putin may hold near absolute power in theory, but he doesn’t control everything.”

The woes of journalists here in our city are more of the economic matter. The number of journalists working at newspapers has

been cut in half over the last ten years due to the Internet. Social media outlets like Facebook, Google and Craig’s List receive the bulk of ad revenue that once went to newspapers.

The Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and Chicago Reader have all cut back their staffs with drastically reduced resources. The online newspaper Dnainfo.com that provided great local coverage was closed after the staff at its sister publication voted to unionize.

The demise of Dnainfo prompted the formation of a group called Save Chicago Neighborhood News. They meet to form ideas on how to promote hyperlocal news.

“This group was founded immediately following the loss of DNAInfo to capture and focus some of the energy from the outpouring of public support,” the group wrote in a manifesto on its Facebook page. “We strive to work from the intersection between journalism and activism.”

The group stated that the intersection between journalism and activism may specifically center on investigative and watchdog reporting.

The first draft of their mission statement reads: “We support and promote independent community-based news in Chicago, based on a belief that this reporting is an integral piece of maintaining a functioning democracy.”

By Jim Vail