Dozens of journalists jailed in Turkey. Reporters forbidden from questioning the ruling political party in China. Government intimidation of reporters in India. The murder of journalists in Russia.
In those countries and many more, freedom of the press is under siege, if it’s allowed to exist at all. Regimes currently imprison 248 journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. The highest numbers are in China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Such abuses underscore the enduring importance of principles anchored in our federal Constitution: In our country, the law blocks the government from using the arbitrary jailing and harassment employed in much of the world against reporters and editors. Commentators, as well as the public, can speak their mind openly, critical of public officials and agencies, without fear of government reprisal.
A recent case from the Philippines provides a sobering illustration of the stakes involved. The country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, doesn’t brook criticism and has directed particular anger at a Filipino online news outlet that has conducted investigations into his government. Prosecutors have filed 11 cases against the news organization in what’s rightly been called censorship by trial. Last month, its founder as well as a reporter were found guilty of libel under a widely criticized interpretation of a law intended to deal with cybersex and computer hacking. The group Reporters Without Borders called the court action a “shocking judicial masquerade.”
Once a regime achieves an initial success in choking off journalistic investigation and commentary, it’s easily tempted to pursue further abuses. That’s been the case in Turkey, where the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has conducted a determined assault on the country’s independent newspapers and broadcasters.
“Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse,” Reporters Without Borders says. “The rule of law is a fading memory in the ‘New Turkey’ of paramount presidential authority. Censorship of websites and online social media has reached unprecedented levels.”
In Russia, “leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence,” Reporters Without Borders says. “Journalists and bloggers have been jailed under selectively applied anti- extremism laws.” Murders of investigative journalists remain unsolved.
In China, the country’s “state and privately owned media are now under the Communist Party’s close control while foreign reporters are encountering more and more obstacles in the field.”
It’s legitimate to hold the press, the same as any institution, to an appropriate level of professionalism. But too many governments are stepping far outside proper bounds to stifle journalistic work that serves the public interest. This is one more reason to appreciate our freedoms as Americans this week celebrate our country’s birthday.
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