The Library Walk on East 41st Street near Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal has bronze plaques with quotes from prominent literary and historical figures. One contains an excerpt of a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Col. Charles Yancey on Jan. 6, 1816.
“Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe,” wrote Jefferson.
This quote that I saw on East 41st Street in March while on assignment in New York seemed all the more appropriate — and timely — on Wednesday as the world marked World Press Freedom Day.
Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan, at a World Press Freedom Day event his newspaper held with Reporters Without Borders, noted 57 journalists were killed around the world in 2022. They include Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American Al Jazeera reporter who Israeli soldiers killed on May 11, 2022
, while she covered an Israel Defense Force raid of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
Ryan in his opening remarks also noted 533 journalists were detained in 2022. They include Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Post contributor and Russian opposition figure who received a 25-year prison sentence last month after a judge convicted him of treason for publicly criticizing the country’s war against Ukraine.
Iranian authorities in 2014 arrested Post Global Opinions Writer Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Rezaian, who is now a senior researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists, and charged them with espionage. Jason Rezaian spent 544 days in prison until his release on Jan. 16, 2016.
The Rezaians spoke about their experience in Iran during the World Press Freedom Day event. Post Senior Writer Frances Stead Sellers also interviewed Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Paul Beckett about Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter of Russian descent who Russia’s Federal Security Service detained on espionage charges in March. Three other journalists also discussed the persecution they faced in their respective countries and/or in the countries from which they reported.
• Adefemi Akinsanya is an anchor and international correspondent for Arise News, a London-based news channel that covers Africa. Nigerian police officers on Oct. 20, 2021, assaulted Akinsanya and her colleagues as they covered a memorial in Lagos, the country’s largest city, that commemorated the protesters who security forces killed during protests against police brutality that had taken place the year before.
• Hanna Liubakova is an independent journalist from Belarus who fled her country in 2020. She continues to cover President Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship and efforts to bring democracy to her homeland.
• Denny Fenster is the editor-at-large for Frontier Myanmar. The Associated Press notes a court in Myanmar in November 2021 convicted him of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations and sentenced him to 11 years in prison with hard labor. The government of Myanmar released Fenster after he spent nearly six months in prison.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Clayton Weimers, the executive director of Reporters without Borders’ U.S. Bureau, also spoke at the event. Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who has been held in Syria for more than a decade, was among those in attendance.
“We know that journalists around the world are increasingly under siege and under siege in a whole variety of ways,” Blinken told Post Associate Editor David Ignatius during the World Press Freedom Day event. “That’s now manifested itself once again very powerfully in Evan (Gershkovich)’s detention and incarceration in Moscow, profoundly unjustly for doing his job.”
Press freedom and journalists’ ability to do their jobs without persecution is also personal.
Blade contributor Yariel Valdés González in September 2019 won asylum in the U.S. because of the persecution he suffered in Cuba as a journalist. (Yariel spent nearly a year in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, and documented the abuses he and his fellow detainees suffered.) The Cuban government on May 8, 2019, detained me at Havana’s José Martí International Airport for nearly seven hours after I tried to enter the country in order to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of LGBTQ and intersex Cubans.
Reporters who contribute to Reportar sin Miedo, the Blade’s media partner in Honduras, received threats last month after they covered a protest against San Pedro Sula Mayor Roberto Contreras over an anti-LGBTQ speech he made. Cuban police on July 11, 2021, violently arrested Maykel González Vivero, a journalist with whom the Blade has worked for nearly a decade, during an anti-government protest in Havana.
Blinken is correct when he says journalists “around the world are increasingly under siege and under siege in a whole variety of ways.” His assertion also applies to media professionals in the U.S.
The rhetoric — “fake news” and journalists are the “enemy of the people” — that the previous president and his followers continue to use in order to advance an agenda based on transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, islamophobia and white supremacy, has placed American journalists at increased risk. The current reality in which we media professionals are working should not be the case in a country that has enshrined a free press in its constitution.
A free press matters now more than ever.