National Press Club

Institute panel reports troubled and dangerous times for journalists

March 14, 2018 | By Louise D. Walsh

Despite growing tensions between the media and government officials in the United States, journalists elsewhere face far worse conditions, according to a six-member panel of veteran reporters and media advocacy groups who spoke at a National Press Club Journalism Institute symposium on March 12.

“We’re not throwing journalists in jail here,” said the panel’s moderator, Miranda Spivack, a visiting journalism professor at DePauw University in Indiana, but warning signs exist. “It’s a tough time to be a journalist abroad and in the United States,” she said. A record number of journalists worldwide, 262, were imprisoned in 2017, the Committee to Project Journalists reports, and 82 were killed.

Speakers gave examples of attacks against journalists in Poland, Myanmar, China and Slovakia, plus targeted killings in Mexico. Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a young Egyptian photojournalist known as Shawkan, learned this week that prosecutors in his home country are seeking the maximum penalty against him, death by hanging. Shawkan won the NPC’s 2016 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award and has been in prison for more than four years after covering an anti-government protest. Both the Club and its Journalism Institute this week condemned Egypt’s effort to intimidate the press by threatening a photojournalist with death.

“Granted, reporters like myself are not facing arrest,” said panelist Jo Mannies, political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, who participated by phone. “But things are going on right now just in the last few months.” She was escorted out of three forums at an annual Lincoln Day Event she has covered for decades along with other press. “I’ve never seen that in 28 years of covering this event,” she said, “More chilling is no one answers the phone when you call the governor’s office. He is under indictment and has funds to cover everything but there’s no sunshine on these funds.”

Jon Sawyer, founder and executive director of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, cited two consequences of President Trump’s media assault. The biggest, he said, is that these attacks on the media “are felt around the world.” Second, “Too many journalists abroad are not getting attention [for being beaten, jailed, or losing their lives] because of the 24/7 Trump coverage. “We are collectively, as media, complicit in what’s happening…as Trump drives coverage.” Sawyer said the media must rebuild the trust we have with the public and “the credibility and following we once had.” Sawyer’s Center funds 25 to 30 international stories with PBS yearly and funds other international reporting.

“It’s a dangerous moment for us,” Sawyer said. “It’s all the more important that we [the media] call it straight and hold everyone accountable.”

“We have to cover the blockage of news,” said reporter John Donnelly from the Congressional Quarterly, who was manhandled by security guards and forcefully removed from an FCC public hearing last year after asking questions. Donnelly, a panelist, said, “We need to teach people that some sources are more reliable than others.” Mainstream media “does get some things wrong but it’s not intentional.” He noted that although the Obama Administration launched more probes than any of his predecessors, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has 27 investigations underway.

“Free expression is not just about what you know but about what information you can receive,” said panelist Summer Lopez, senior director for free expression programs, PEN America. She spoke of Russians journalists whose independent media outlet was shut down but were not cowed. “Yes, we lost the job. But we created something new!” one told her.

Panelist Nazanin Ashkan’s organization conducts safety training for journalists and human rights defenders on three levels: digital, physical and psychological safety. As the senior program officer for IREX SAFE Initiative, she said it’s important to invest in media literacy. For example, in Ukraine, “we train citizens on how to look at news in a more analytical way” and to demand more quality coverage.

The symposium tackled subjects like cybersecurity, compromised data, diminished resources for news coverage, National Shield Law advocacy, the need for American students to understand how their government works, and for the public to fight challenges to government transparency.

When Journalism Institute President Barbara Cochran opened this Sunshine Week event titled “Dispelling the Gathering Clouds” she said that the evening symposium was “really about the public right to know.” Some states and cities skirt public disclosure laws. “The result is we have less public information available,” said the moderator. Journalists serve the public, the panel emphasized, but cannot do their job when news sources and public records are blocked.