Remarks as delivered on July 26, 2018:
“I rise today to talk about the importance of a free press and its role, since the founding of our Nation, in protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans.
“I was on the Senate floor on July 12th talking about a recent tragedy, a mass shooting at the Annapolis-based Capital Gazette. A man who had a long-standing grudge against the newspaper for accurately reporting news about him shot his way into the newsroom and killed five good people. These five men and women died doing their jobs, reporting the news or supporting a publication that is an important part of their community.
“One victim in particular, Wendi Winters, fought back and worked to distract the gunman in such a way that those who bore witness to her bravery described her actions in this way: ‘Wendi died protecting her friends, but also in defense of her newsroom from a murderous assault. Wendi died protecting freedom of the press.’
“Wendi died protecting the freedom of the press. We think of violence against reporters as something that happens in other countries, in war zones and the like, but not here, not in the United States of America.
“All around the world, reporters work to gather facts, ask questions, and report the news in the spirit of the free, open, and transparent societies and governments that all people deserve.
“Too often, reporters are harassed, jailed, and even killed simply because of the nature of their work, which often exposes cronyism and corruption.
“From this floor, I’ve stood in solidarity with Reuter’s reporter who were detained in Burma for shining a light on the horrific abuses that occurred in Rakhine State. I’ve stood in solidarity with Ethiopian journalists and bloggers who are routinely arrested for criticizing the Ethiopian government and exposing human rights abuses in that country. I’ve talked frequently about China, a country that engages in routine censorship and online blocking; harassment, reprisals, and detention of journalists; and visa delays and denials for journalists.
“According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, more than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last 10 years while doing their job.
“Of the member States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Russia remains the deadliest country for journalists. Investigative journalist Maksim Borodin, who died by defenestration in April, was the latest Russian reporter to be silenced by death.
“Turkey is the largest jailer of journalists in the world, and scores of media outlets have been closed since the attempted coup there. The heavy-handed measures used against media freedom in Turkey, both before and during the recent elections, illustrates the lengths to which the government went to control the information available to voters. It also serves as a reminder of the essential role of a pluralistic media for free and fair elections.
“In May, a Helsinki Commission briefing on the murder of investigative journalists examined the unsolved murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak.
“Daphne was a Maltese journalist known for her investigations into international organized crime and its connection to the government of Malta. She relentlessly probed Maltese citizenship sales, revealed money laundering, and exposed sanctions evasion. At the Commission’s briefing, her son, Matthew, described the years of harassment, intimidation, and threats she faced by those who sought to silence her. ‘Growing up,’ he said, ‘I thought these things were normal.’ She was murdered in Malta on October 16, 2017, by a bomb planted under the seat of her rental car.
“Jan Kuciak investigated financial crimes, organized crime, and high-level corruption in Slovakia. He was executed by gunshot in his home on February 25, 2018, along with his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. On May 6, some 3,000 people attended a Holy Mass, and memorial in the small village where the two 27-year-olds would have wed.
“I am troubled that, at a time when media freedom in Slovakia is already under a spotlight, a Slovak judge is suing journalist Peter Getting for writing about communist-era judges who handed down sentences against people for attempting to emigrate. The crimes of communism should be reported, taught and remembered. Somewhat ironically, a law reminiscent of the communist past is being used to thwart scrutiny of the crimes of that very era.
“Unfortunately, Slovakia is not the only country where defamation or insult laws are used to limit free speech. In addition to laws that criminalize libel and make insulting the president or other officials an offense, Belarus criminalizes providing media services without accreditation and has recently moved to limit access to the media on the Internet.
“Here at home, Donald Trump – as a candidate and as president – has mused about taking ‘a strong look’ look at our Nation’s libel laws, calling them ‘a sham and a disgrace.’
“Jason Renzaian, a reporter for the Washington Post who was falsely imprisoned in Iran for doing his job as a journalist, had this to say recently. He talks about that attack I referenced earlier in Annapolis.
“‘Mostly I’ve covered attacks on the media taking place on the other side of the world, usually in countries where the flow of information is restricted, or conditions are such that a sense of desperation or political or tribal affiliation can compel individuals to take heinous action … Writing about a deadly attack that happened less than 30 miles away, in an idyllic town that I recently visited with relatives from overseas, is a new experience for me. And I have to say that I don’t relish the task.’
“We Americans have certain rights and responsibilities granted to us through the Constitution, which established the rule of law in this country.
“Freedom of the press is one of those most basic rights and it is central to the First Amendment to the Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS.’
“This precious freedom has often been under attack, figuratively speaking, since our Nation’s founding.
“Today, attacks on the American media have become more frequent and more literal, spurred on by dangerous rhetoric that has created an ‘open season’ on harassing the media for doing its job – asking questions that need to be asked, investigating the stories that need to be uncovered, and bringing needed transparency to the halls of power whether they are in Annapolis; Washington, DC; or elsewhere.
“Then-candidate and now President Donald Trump’s rhetoric – calling the media ‘a stain on America’ and ‘the enemy of the American people’ – certainly has caused damage.
“On July 13th, while Donald Trump was in the United Kingdom, he continued his assault on the media, brushing off a reporter from CNN by saying ‘CNN is fake news.’
“This was underscored yesterday by a question being asked by White House Press Corps pool reporter at his meeting with the European Commission. The reporter asked a question the president didn’t like. Because the president didn’t like the question being asked by CNN’s Caitlin Collins in her role as a pool reporter, she was told that she would be banned from the next event that was open to press or otherwise open to all credentialed media.
“Then, yesterday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the President said to the audience ‘They’re not to believe what you see and hear.’
“The President of United States told a crowd of veterans: ‘Stick with us don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening.’
“That is the President of the United States saying those comments; again, demeaning the press and the importance of our free press.
“Why is the president doing this? Earlier this year, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, an icon in the news business, shared comments from Donald Trump from an interview she did with him soon after his 2016 election win. Stahl recalled that she said to Donald Trump about his attacks on the media, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over. It’s boring and it’s time to end this.’
“The Candidate’s response was straight forward and shocking: He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’
“Let that sink in for a moment. A man who was about to assume the position of President of the United States explicitly acknowledging he was purposely working to diminish the integrity of the free press.
“After the Capital Gazette shooting, Donald Trump said that ‘journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.’ But how do we interpret his sincerity when, more frequently, he is calling the media ‘fake news’ or ‘totally unhinged’ and telling the American people – and the world – that reporters are ‘truly bad people’?
“Donald Trump’s constant, dismal refrain needs to end. He needs to accept that one of the press’s most important roles is to speak truth to power – especially his.
“There is a reason why the leading newspaper in Helsinki bought 300 ads that said, ‘Mr. President, Welcome to the land of free press.’
“The message is clear. They put that ad up to let Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin understand that one of the basic tenets of a democratic society is to embrace and respect the freedom of the press.
“In Russia, Putin routinely jails political opponents and journalists.
“Here at home, we’re left to wonder whether Donald Trump is more inclined to agree with Putin’s view of the press than with Thomas Jefferson, who famously said: ‘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.’
“As was written in the Washington Post, Donald Trump ‘didn’t create the problem of hostility to journalists, but he exploits and exacerbates it. That’s true, too, of the leaders in other countries who routinely call reporters enemies of the state, terrorists and national security threats. And we must be vigilant in standing up to these empty accusations.’
“After the tragedy at the Capital Gazette, Annapolis and most of the country rallied in support of the survivors of the mass shooting. They received tremendous outpouring of support, including by this body and I know it was heartfelt.
“And yet the paper has reported that there have been new death threats and emails celebrating the attack. This is sick and it is dangerous. It shouldn’t happen in Annapolis. It shouldn’t happen in America, or anywhere in the world.
“Journalists, like all Americans, SHOULD be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job – both figuratively and literally.
“The right of journalists to report the news is nothing less than the right of all of us to know. Media freedom and media pluralism are essential for the expression of, or ensuring respect for, other fundamental freedoms and safeguarding democracy, the rule of law, and a system of checks and balances.
“Every one of us in this body – Democrats and Republicans – has sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. As leaders of this great Nation, we have a responsibility to defend the rights of our citizens, INCLUDING the freedom of the press.
“It’s enshrined in our Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS.’
“Just before the 4th of July recess, I had the opportunity to discuss the state of media pluralism and the safety of journalists with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir. The Representative plays a key role in calling out threats to and attacks on journalists, including murders and violent attacks. He also assists OSCE participating States in fulfilling their commitments by providing them with expert opinions on media regulation and legislation. Unfortunately, Mr. Desir has his work cut out for him.
“In the aftermath of the tragic murders at the Capital Gazette headquarters in Annapolis, Mr. Desir sent his condolences and words of support.
“That mass shooting, and the other instances I have just mentioned, are all stark reminders of the incredible work that journalists do every day, in big cities and small around the world, reporting on all the things that are important in our lives – and the dangers they face doing it.
“I appreciated the sentiment from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. I’m grateful to the other journalists at the Capital Gazette who are carrying on their important mission even in the face of this tragic adversity. And I’m grateful for journalists everywhere for their dogged pursuit of the truth.”