With freedom of the press, “American leadership really matters”
The work of journalists is becoming increasingly dangerous, with record numbers of arrests for their coverage and dozens of deaths each year.
As of December, more than 290 journalists were in jail for their work and at least 24 had been killed, according to the US Committee to Protect Journalists. The group’s data reflects an increasingly dangerous environment for the media.
As CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon has seen how journalists have changed the world while becoming targets of repressive forces.
In an interview with VOA last month, Simon spoke about the heightened risks to global media.
“Just doing journalism — especially responsible journalism, journalism that threatens those in power — is inherently dangerous,” he said.
After nearly 25 years at CPJ, including 15 as executive director, Simon will step down on December 31, but says he remains committed to defending press freedom.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: How has press freedom around the world changed during your tenure as CPJ’s executive director?
Joel Simon: When I started at CPJ in 1997, it was a time of deep optimism, about democracy, human rights, freedom of the press. After all, journalists played a crucial role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reporting in Latin America contributed to the collapse of military governments in that region.
There was a feeling that independent journalism could really change the world, and I think it might. But then there was this tremendous backlash.
Repressive governments, autocratic governments all over the world understand this, not least because of technology. And in the information age, those who control the power of narrative control.
Journalists help shape public perception. They help shape stories. Thus, they are in conflict with governments around the world – both repressive governments that use violence and legal action, but also in democracies.
Increasingly, people live under partially free governments and live in an environment where press freedom has deteriorated, in which their ability to access independent information and media and to hold governments to account is more limited.
This is the moment we find ourselves in now. And I think the pendulum will swing one day. It’s always like that. But we must recognize this moment in history.
The environment for independent journalism has changed everywhere, including in the United States. The challenges are greater. This period of deep optimism that existed when I started this profession 25 years ago… unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Q: What remedies should exist to protect and support journalists?
Simon: It must be recognized that these are long-term trends and the reasons why they occur are complex. There are simply no short-term solutions.
The only thing we can do that is really critical is that the United States be able to assert its global leadership. And this is not currently the case.
I think American leadership is really counting on these issues.
When (former) President (Donald) Trump started using the term ‘fake news’ and calling journalists ‘enemies of the people’, we saw autocratic governments around the world adopt the same rhetoric and use to suppress independent journalism.
When we have seen the (George W.) Bush administration embrace the rhetoric of the war on terror, we have seen governments cracking down on the media under the guise of suppressing terrorism.
In the Biden administration, what happened in Afghanistan really undermined the credibility of the United States. Journalists who have built a vibrant media community in this country have been gravely threatened by the collapse of the regime, and the US government has failed to take the lead in protecting them.
These journalists were disappointed. Journalists around the world saw what happened, and I think it further damaged the credibility of the United States.
Q: Are there any particular cases that really affect you?
Simon: This job as CPJ’s executive director is a job of learning about grief and loss.
I have lost so many friends. I have lost journalists who come to my office, some of them have won the International Press Freedom Award (from CPJ). And they won it because they’re so brave, they’re not afraid of anything. But this fearlessness sometimes means that they fail to understand, identify and respond to the threats facing them.
I will talk about a friend of mine — Javier Valdez Cardenas, in Mexico. He was honored with an international press freedom award for his courageous coverage.
Several years after receiving the award, he received threats. We had conversations with him. We wanted to evacuate him. He said he couldn’t leave. He said he had to stay and keep covering the story.
He was killed (in May 2017). And it was so tragic, because it was really ultimately preventable.
We understood why he wouldn’t leave, but we were heartbroken. All we can do is fight for justice.
It’s always a tough fight. But some of the people who committed this crime are in prison today, and we will continue to fight for justice in his case and in so many others around the world.
Q: What types of coverage can lead to attacks on the media?
Simon: When you see journalists killed, they tend to report on organized crime. Daphne Caruana Galizia, the blogger murdered in Malta (in 2017), had denounced the official protection network in Malta.
Or if you look at some of the journalists who were murdered in Russia, or in Mexico, or Jan Kuciak (in Slovakia in 2018). They were all talking about the intersection of organized crime and government protection that facilitates and enables these criminal networks to operate.
When journalists expose this network, they threaten the bottom line. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, this can get you killed.
Q: What motivates you to continue?
Simon: What inspires me is that I truly believe that there is nothing more essential to how humans connect with each other… (than) the sharing of information. And journalism is absolutely essential for that.
So I am deeply optimistic that this need will persist and that people will continue to fight for access to the information they need to make sense of their lives. And support the journalists who do this work.
Where I am less optimistic is that these kinds of efforts threaten entrenched power structures, including authoritarian states. And they become more adept at managing and controlling and retaining their ability to define the narrative.
We must continue to fight, because freedom of the press is the battle of the information age and we must win.
My optimism stems not from an examination of current reality, but from an acknowledgment of what is at stake. I believe that many people around the world recognize that they ultimately support independent journalism. They finally recognize the value of what journalists do. And they are finally ready to fight for it.