Feeling Our Oats Following World Press Freedom Day

Fordham’s free speech paper reflects on our mission

By Robin Happel

Staff U.N. Correspondent & Copy Editor

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A little over fifty years ago this week, the Children’s Crusade began in Birmingham. While some Southern papers preferred to punch holes through photo negatives and print puff pieces on their front pages, other outlets – notably the New York Times – gave Bull Connor no quarter, and bared the brutality of the Birmingham police for the world to see. Dr. King himself claimed that coverage of the Children’s Crusade (and later Bloody Sunday) mattered more to the movement than almost anything else. For Dr. King, photojournalism itself was a form of passive resistance. “The world doesn’t know this happened because you didn’t photograph it,” he later told Life magazine. “It is so much more important for you to take a photo… than for you to be another person joining in the fray.”

This message was repeated this past Thursday by Ramu Domodaran, Chief of U.N. Academic Impact. For Mr. Domodaran, a free press is a tool for teaching tolerance, as well as supporting democracy and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Paraphrasing Christiane Amanpour, the difference between truth and lies is the difference between democracy and dictatorship. (If anyone was still wondering, there were many instances of vagueblogging Donald Trump.)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.N.-designated day of World Press Freedom, a somewhat solemn occasion in an age of unprecedented attacks on investigative journalists, war correspondents, and others across the globe. According to U.N. correspondent and panelist Melissa Kent, last year marked a record global high for reporters imprisoned or even killed just for doing their jobs in Turkey, China, Egypt, and elsewhere. (Controversially, several attendees also claimed that Turkey, which currently leads the list of countries cracking down on the press, used its political clout to cancel another U.N. panel on press freedom. The censored panel was organized through UNAOC, however, not DPI.)

Following this brief flare of ironic tension, the panelists went on to discuss the topic du jour – fake news. “And I don’t mean the old tabloid stuff of women giving birth to alien babies,” Ms. Kent quipped. “Fake news has lost its meaning… it’s become a convenient banner to distort the truth and discredit the media.” Last Monday, Malaysia convicted a reporter critical of police under “fake news” charges, and roughly a half dozen other countries have followed suit in such censorship according to Ms. Kent and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Currently, Amnesty International is campaigning for the release of two journalists unjustly held in Myanmar, as well as other human rights activists through their annual Write for Rights campaign.WriteForRightsMahadine

Ms. Kent went on to cite an MIT study showing that false news travels six times faster on Twitter than accurate reporting. Given the U.N.’s recent condemnation of Facebook for its role in the Rohingya genocide, such spread of propaganda is increasingly worrisome. Nevertheless, many in attendance seemed optimistic that, with increased Internet access and media literacy, political polemics may gradually give way to more reasoned debate. Beyond the threat of bots, however, is the statistically much more severe threat of state censorship – according to activists, 97% of jailed journalists are imprisoned by their home countries, and many more are killed by non-state actors.

Perhaps most poignantly, several Mideast correspondents on the panel reflected on the recent murder of ten Afghan journalists, one of the single deadliest attacks in recent memory. Marie Bourreau, a war correspondent, knew one of the men who passed away personally. Shah Marai was a courageous photographer who covered over two decades of turmoil, she recalled, and he left behind a baby girl and two other children.

“I think about Afghanistan almost every day,” Ms. Bourreau confessed to the crowd. Shortly after she herself left Kabul, her driver and another local liaison were also killed by insurgents. “Local reporters are our eyes and ears on the ground, and it is up to us to raise our voice to protect them,” she concluded. Loubna Mrie, a Syrian activist and NYU student, similarly emphasized the power of citizen journalists. After the Syrian government shut out Western media outlets, it was up to citizens to shed light on the unfolding atrocities. “I was one of the thousands – maybe millions – who stood in the streets and chanted for change. I was young, so I thought change could come without a price.” Shortly after Ms. Mrie left Syria, a close friend and fellow journalist was killed by ISIS. She concluded by asking for accountability, as well as justice for the fallen and their families. “Don’t think of journalism as a career – think of it as a tool to bring justice.”

Although such stories paint a grim picture of the state of press freedom worldwide, other panelists were cautiously optimistic. Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, recently profiled a Mexican journalist, Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who is applying for asylum in the U.S. following backlash from the Mexican military. According to Coll, we have a moral obligation to shelter such voices, and protect press freedom for the sake of democracy. “Human rights are not an à la carte menu,” he quipped. When freedom of the press falters, so too do other civil liberties. Yet, as long as reporters like Soto keep speaking up, we have a fighting chance to hold onto a truly free press.

Coll concluded his talk by noting the recent threats to press freedom in the United States, from the much-maligned “fake news awards” to the more ominous listing of opposition voices by the Department of Homeland Security (quoting Forbes, “what could possibly go wrong? A lot.”) In my home state of Tennessee, as another example, it would have been almost unimaginable to have a campus paper cover LGBT and feminist causes with the freedom the paper has. Repeatedly, our state legislature has overlooked the First Amendment in an attempt to legalize killing peaceful protestors, ban protest signs, and join the over half dozen states that ban even the word ‘gay’ from public schools.

A half century after Bloody Sunday, in short, it seems that Southerners like me still have a long ways to go towards the true freedom of expression Dr. King desired. But, as part of the paper’s editorial board, I’m proud to print whatever my fellow students are brave enough to pitch. Although we have a reputation as somewhat cheeky and full of cat pictures, memes, and indie music, I like to think that we’re a needed voice on a campus that has a reputation for not always being friendly to free speech. Next semester, I hope to continue printing whatever we as students feel is most pressing, which will probably still be largely memes and cat pictures. (Hey, gotta stay on brand.)

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