By Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, has justified the killing of journalists. In 2016, he said “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a bitch.”
Duterte is an extreme example of the ominous rise, worldwide, of demagogues or autocratic nationalists. Other countries with such leaders are Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Russia, India, China, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Their leaders tend to justify their actions as necessary for national security. They also claim to speak for the “people.” Where have we heard this before?
The press and the media are considered enemies because the press, traditionally, throws a spotlight on governmental failure and is a check on power. U.S. President Donald Trump calls the press the enemy of the people. This could lead to violence against journalists. Malaysian lawmakers recently passed a law that would impose prison sentences of up to six years on people found to be spreading “fake news.”
What is the appeal of demagogues and right-wing parties? Some of the reasons are well described by Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch: “The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting discontent over the status quo. Many people feel left behind by technological change, the global economy and growing inequality. Horrific incidents of terrorism generate fear. Some are uneasy with societies that have become more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns.”
We agree with some of the criticisms of the status quo, but electing demagogues is not the answer and is dangerous. Media independence is under pressure and journalism is under siege worldwide. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org), the number of journalists imprisoned around the globe hit a record high in 2017, with at least 262 reporters behind bars. They’re guilty of doing their jobs. For a second year in row, more than half of those detained are being held in three countries: China, Egypt and Turkey, the world’s largest jailers of journalists.
In an annual report, the CPJ said that 87 percent of those jailed journalists covered political news, a particularly dangerous beat in many parts of the world. Sadly, only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a robust free press. Some of the countries with such a press are Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland.
The imprisonment and murder of journalists is the tip of the iceberg. Harassment and intimidation, legal statutes like criminal defamation and closure of offending outlets are also common. These realities have a chilling effect and lead to increasing self-censorship.
Aside from jail, in the past year, 88 journalists were killed around the world. Of these, as many as 46 were killed in targeted attacks, in most cases because they were investigating and exposing corruption.
Freedom of the press is a vital moral issue intrinsically connected to human rights and is recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Press freedom is celebrated every year at the UN.
In spite of the litany of bad news, reporters continue to persist in doing their professional work, reporting and getting the story.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, a representative to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.