Thuillier: United States should prioritize press freedom

Marcus Thuillier, Op-Ed Contributor

Even in 2019, not much has changed for the international journalist community, as coverage of France’s “yellow vests” protests showed once more. We have become used to violence toward journalists in authoritarian countries, but similar acts have picked up steam in democracies around the world — at a dangerous rate. If 2018 was the “worst year on record for journalist killings,” according to USA Today, it is frightening to imagine what 2019 has in store for us.

As leaders across the globe vilify news media, it is easy to forget that journalists must be considered a pillar of modern democracy. Freedom of press is ingrained in the First Amendment of the constitution. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote in 1787, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Being able to do our journalistic work in a non-hostile environment should be a given, but it’s become increasingly difficult. Despite what President Donald Trump says, media organizations are not the “enemy of the American people.” Instead, they need to again be treated as the integral part of the Constitution that they are.

2018 has seen repeated assaults on the press. Trump has done his fair share, from the Jim Acosta debacle to his generally aggressive rhetoric toward newspapers. Five journalists died in the United States last year after being attacked, including four during the Capital Gazette shooting in June 2018. On top of that, since 2017, 45 reporters have been physically attacked while covering protests according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Perhaps most showing is the tumble the United States has taken in the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index since 2016. This country, which so often praises the liberty given to its citizens under the Constitution, only comes in 45th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, which is far too low.

We need to do better. The decline of press freedom in the United States cannot only be attributed to Trump, since the United States ranked 49th in the PFI in 2015 under the second Obama administration. Time Magazine giving journalists the moniker “the guardians” for “the war on truth” needs to be a wake up call for a generation that has unprecedented access to a variety of news sources. If we want the continued enjoyment of this privilege, it is our duty to stand up for those who risk aggression and even their lives in the process of reporting the news. Disagreeing is one thing, but there has to be zero tolerance for violence or threatening rhetoric toward journalists.

The protection of press freedom is complicated but essential. We as a generation should cherish that we live in a democracy that allows journalists to do their job. We can’t take free speech for granted, and we can’t “wait for a journalist to be murdered to protest,” as World Editors Forum president David Callaway put it. The work journalists do is protected by the Constitution, and people in charge of this country need to accept that.

Marcus Thuillier is a first-year graduate student. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.