Ten journalists were killed in a series of attacks Monday in Afghanistan. The week prior, 14 journalists from Turkey’s leading opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were given lengthy jail terms after a show trial based on trumped-up charges. Nine Turkish journalists who worked for Zaman, Turkey’s most widely-read newspaper until it was shuttered by the government, now face life sentences simply for writing columns critical of the government.
And already this year, at least 26 journalists worldwide have been killed — some in conflict areas but many targeted for murder — according to tallies by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
For Americans, that ought to bring sobering perspective — and a refocusing — after the recent burst of media and presidential handwringing over a barbed routine by comedian Michelle Wolf at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, where such remarks are as predictable as they are forgettable.
President Trump jumped to Twitter to decry Wolf’s jokes, calling her performance a “very big, boring bust.” He had refused to attend the dinner for the second consecutive year.
In a tweet defending Wolf, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel did the best job of putting to rest the tempest in a D.C. teapot: “Dear ‘the media’ — @michelleisawolf was FUNNY. Hire a juggler next year.”
With the media and White House’s attention hovering on the flap over the White House Correspondents Dinner, it was left to newly-minted Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to respond to the deadly attack on journalists in Afghanistan. He called the free press “the cornerstone of democracy” and delivered a reminder of threats to journalists worldwide. He also said that the “vibrant media landscape that has developed in Afghanistan will endure, in large part due to those journalists and media professionals who tragically died in today’s attack.”
Nine journalists were killed and at least five more were wounded April 30 in suicide bombings in Kabul, the capital, and one was killed in a shooting in a rural province. Multiple reports noted that the Kabul attack was the deadliest targeting journalists since January 2015, when terrorists opened fire at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, eight of whom were staff members.
Less visible to Americans is the collapse of the free press in Turkey, following an attempted 2016 government coup. A Turkish court on April 24 sentenced 14 staff members of Cumhuriyet to up to seven years in prison on vague and unsupported charges of terrorism — a verdict that international press and human rights advocates decry as retaliation for the paper’s ongoing criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Border’s 2018 press freedom index, released just weeks ago. The NATO member nation has now jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Lest we forget amidst the reports of carnage and corrupted justice systems, the battle for a free press also involves widespread efforts to promulgate “fake news” — either in a direct attempt to fool news consumers, or to discredit real journalism. My colleagues at NewseumED offer lesson plans and tools to fight “flawed” news at www.newseumed.org, and on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, they participated in a panel on media literacy hosted by the U.S. State Department.
On June 4, we invite you to join us — either in person or via live stream — for the annual rededication of the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial. This year, the names of 18 journalists who died in 2017 in the pursuit of news will be engraved on a soaring glass-plated wall. They represent more than 60 reporters killed last year.
As the attacks in Afghanistan, and the murders of journalists from Mexico to Malta, India to Iraq, and many more countries around the world demonstrate all too well, journalists continue to be seen as a threat to political power and to controlled narratives promulgated by dictators, drug lords and terrorists.
Let’s spend much less time fretting about a few moments of dinner commentary and more on condemning those who work relentlessly to kill truth by murdering, jailing or punishing the truth-tellers.
Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com