NEW YORK—PEN America joins advocates and allies around the world in celebrating World Press Freedom Day today, an occasion to recognize the fundamental role of press freedoms in safeguarding democracy, to celebrate the work of courageous journalists and media outlets around the world, and to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives while doing the often unsung work of shining a light on the truth. While there is much to celebrate, and many news outlets and journalists to admire, 2018 is already proving to be a year of alarming rollbacks in press freedom and disturbing attacks against members of the press in the U.S. and abroad.

“Journalists worldwide are under siege from governments and other actors who fear the press’s role as a force for transparency and accountability,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “Violence, intimidation, imprisonment, and online harassment all have the same goal—to silence those who would speak and uncover the truth. Yet every day, across the globe, we also see countless examples of journalists acting with courage and integrity, refusing to be silenced. These brave men and women, who embody the power of the written word to change the world, must not stand alone. All those who value democracy and human rights must stand with them, to demand the protection of journalists and the preservation of press freedoms in every country.”

Press Freedom in the United States

In the U.S., journalists and news outlets face an unprecedented onslaught of vitriol and vilification, including from the President himself. The harmful rhetoric is coupled with reduced transparency; it has now been over 440 days since President Trump held a formal, solo press conference, the longest such stretch in half a century. The current Administration’s disdain for press freedoms is not limited to the White House, however; this week it was revealed that the Justice Department removed an entire section dedicated to the importance of a free press from its manual for federal prosecutors.

Against this ominous backdrop of threatening rhetoric comes the active silencing of a Memphis reporter, Manuel Duran, whose reporting included exposing ties between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Memphis police. Duran was arrested on April 3 while reporting on a protest, in what many believe was retaliation for his negative police coverage. When the charges were dropped, Duran was not released, but instead handed over to ICE, and is now being processed for deportation to his native El Salvador. Duran’s arrest and detention suggest a chilling effort to suppress and retaliate against negative reporting and highlight the particular vulnerability of immigrant journalists in the current political environment.

Other U.S. journalists are facing a different kind of silencing: self-censorship and withdrawal from public discourse due to online harassment and hate. In 2017, PEN America conducted a survey of more than 230 journalists and writers, revealing compelling evidence of an online chilling effect: two-thirds of those who had experienced harassment reported refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and/or fearing for their personal safety in response to online harassment. Recognizing this as a threat to free expression, PEN America created an Online Harassment Field Manual, a first-of-its kind digital resource to equip and empower journalists and writers to defend against online harassment so they can continue to write and publish online.

In the midst of these extraordinary threats to press freedom in the U.S., PEN America launched the Press Freedom Incentive Fund to support events and activities focused on press freedom advocacy in communities around the country. For this year’s World Press Freedom Day, PEN America is reaching out to individuals and communities involved in these efforts to assemble a Storycorps archive of interviews and self-recorded audio pieces, highlighting personal perspectives on the impact and importance of press freedom. Individuals interested in contributing to this community archive on press freedom can contact pressfreedomfund@pen.org for more information. 

Press Freedom Around the World

Across the globe, the threats journalists face are growing increasingly grave. At the end of 2017, a record number of journalists—262—were imprisoned for their work. Thirty-two journalists have been killed so far in 2018, with 18 deaths in April alone.

On April 30 in Kabul, Afghanistan, nine journalists were among those killed in a pair of bombings claimed by Islamic State, and that appeared to specifically target the press. The same day, BBC reporter Ahmad Shah was shot and killed in a separate attack in the country’s Khost region.

Reporting on protests proves especially dangerous around the world. On April 5, Yaser Murtaja, a cameraman for a Palestinian media organization, died after being wounded by Israeli forces while trying to film protests in the Gaza Strip. A week later, on April 13, journalist Ahmad Abu Hussein was killed as he attempted to cover the same protests. Both journalists were reportedly wearing protective vests with the lettering “PRESS” emblazoned on them when they were shot. On April 22, Nicaraguan journalist Ángel Gahona was shot and killed while streaming video of a protest against the government’s social security reforms.  

At the same time, many journalists languish in prison for their work. In Myanmar, the government continues to prosecute Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for alleged violations of the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested while investigating the execution of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din village in Rakhine state. Their work resulted in a ground-breaking exposé that pushed military officials to admit that the killings occurred. Seven soldiers prosecuted for the massacre received a ten-year sentence; if convicted, the reporters who exposed it face up to 14 years in prison.

PEN America will honor Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award at the 2018 PEN Literary Gala on May 22.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT
Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: agasparian@pen.org​