Time Magazine’s announcement today that its prestigious “Person of the Year” title has this year been given to a group of courageous journalists around the world is a very welcome move.
Referred to as “The Guardians”, the journalists named by Time include Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who Turkish authorities report was murdered inside the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul in October; Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Reuters journalists serving seven-year prison sentences for reporting the truth about the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar; Maria Ressa, founder and executive editor of Rappler Media, facing possible jail time on trumped-up charges of tax fraud in the Philippines; and The Capital Gazette, the local newspaper that lost five employees – including four journalists – when a gunman attacked its newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland in June.
These embattled journalists are not alone. Reporters Without Borders’ data shows that a total of 81 journalists, citizen journalists, and media workers have been killed globally in connection with their work so far this year, setting 2018 to be an incredibly deadly year for media. Even more journalists, citizen journalists, and media workers are detained in connection with their work – a total of 333 as of today.
Journalism is becoming an increasingly risky profession as strongmen around the world seem to have gotten the message that they are free to use any means at their disposal to silence critical reporting. This is not just happening under entrenched authoritarian regimes, but increasingly in countries once thought of as standard-setters when it comes to press freedom.
Through its World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders documented a sharp decline in democracies in 2016 that has continued ever since. The United States is currently ranked 45th out of 180 countries, and President Trump seems more determined than ever to fuel public hatred for the “fake news media”, regularly employing the Stalinist rhetoric “enemies of the people” to describe journalists.
There are now many Trumps around the world – from the newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – united in their desire to silence those who dare to criticise them or expose their wrongdoings. Press freedom predators now take on many guises – whether powerful, corrupt, or criminal – and remain determined to keep their unsavoury truths hidden and to make examples of those who continue to dig.
And yet these courageous “guardians” persevere.
In what would be his final column for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi argued for the need for freedom of expression in the Arab world, noting that the pattern of international “condemnation quickly followed by silence” was giving Arab governments “free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate”.
When sentenced to seven years in prison alongside Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar in September, Reuters journalist Wa Lone stated “We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom”.
Last week, Rappler editor Maria Ressa turned herself in to authorities after a warrant was issued for her arrest on spurious charges of tax fraud. After posting bail, Ressa said “Now is certainly not the time to be afraid…we need to hold government to account, and part of the reason I’m here is precisely that”, vowing to continue to hold the government accountable.
After the horrific attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom in June, having witnessed the murder of five of their colleagues, staff still published a newspaper the following day. “Yes, we’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow”, they tweeted.
These brave journalists, and their fellow embattled colleagues around the world, are taking on these unthinkable risks on behalf of us all. They are committed to exposing the truth, to holding our governments to account, and to protecting our very democracy.
These “guardians” deserve all the recognition they can get – indeed more than that. They deserve our gratitude, our support, and our protection.
Rebecca Vincent is the UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders