National Press Club

Is there a Cold War on press freedom?

May 19, 2017 | By Kathy Kiely |

A little more than two weeks ago, the National Press Club, at it often does, hosted a group of foreign journalists. Around the table in the Sarah McClendon room sat this year’s class of Vaclav Havel fellows, young journalists from countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union. Their fellowship is cosponsored by the Czech and U.S. governments, in an effort to encourage democracy by bolstering free speech.

Presiding at the head of the table was John Donnelly, the longtime chair of the club’s press freedom team. He drew the young reporters out, asking them questions and offering advice. As our guests were leaving, the U. S. government employees accompanying the Havel fellows went out of their way to thank John for taking the time to spend time with the fellows, year in and year out.

Afterwards John and I joked that maybe we should have been the ones asking for advice. Maybe, we laughed, our guests from Russia, Moldovia, Georgia and the Ukraine could have offered us some tips on how to operate as a journalist in a country where your leaders consider you the “enemy.”

Little did we know.

On Thursday, while he was covering a meeting of the Federal Communications Commission for CQ Roll Call, John was pinned against a wall by security guards who prevented him from asking a question of the commissioners and then evicted from a public building. This despite the fact that he had his press credentials clearly on display at all times. Afterwards, various FCC officials offered John excuses disguised as apologies: The FCC was on a heightened security alert (never mind those press credentials); one commissioner John was trying to question was “freezing and starving.”

Now all of us have been in press scrums that get out of hand and found ourselves having to deal with sources or security folks who are having a bad day. So it would be tempting to dismiss this as just one of those incidents and move on.

But in the current climate, we cannot.

Incidents like these, occurring under a president who has openly threatened a free press, take on a greater and more ominous significance. And they do not seem to be isolated. In West Virginia, a reporter is facing criminal charges for trying ask a question of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. At a panel organized by the club’s Journalism Institute on World Press Freedom Day earlier this month, Dan Shelley, incoming executive director of the Radio TV Digital News Association worried that President Trump’s rhetoric has “permeated” all levels of politics and “emboldened” dangerous forces.

RTDNA members are “reporting an increased vitriol against reporters on the street,” Shelley said. “In some cases, reporters and photographers are being spat upon or having things thrown at them.” In a few cases, he added “photographers have been arrested just standing on public property recording demonstrations.”

That is why we are encouraging Press Club members — both journalists and communicators — to be hyper-vigilant about assaults and limitations, however incremental they seem, on freedom of speech. If you see something, say something: in print, online or over the air. And let us know. The National Press Club and its Journalism Institute want to play a role in alerting the American people to any moves that are being made to restrict what the First Amendment has licensed. When it comes to freedom of speech, the old adage applies: Use it or lose it.

The National Press Club is the world's leading professional organization for journalists. Through its Press Freedom Team, the club works to promote freedom of expression and transparency at home and abroad. The National Press Club Journalism Institute, a non-profit affiliate, equips news professionals with the skills to innovate, leverages emerging trends, recognizes innovators, and mentors the next generation of journalists.

Contact: Kathy Kiely, NPCJI Press Freedom Fellow (202) 256-4748