WASHINGTON – Following World Press Freedom Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) made the following remarks:
“Today I rise to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, which was this past Sunday, and to celebrate the brave journalists all over the world who safeguard the values of truth, democracy, transparency, and justice through their work. Every year, we set aside this day to reaffirm our commitment to the free press. This year, however, is a little bit different. This year, we are in the midst of a brutal global public health crisis. One of the reasons that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked so much havoc – taking hundreds of thousands of lives and devastating the economy – is that people with power have propagated misinformation about the virus. In the words of the World Health Organization, we are witnessing an “info-demic”. Now, more than ever, it is vital that the public receives the truth, and that means protecting the free press. We are relying on the press to bring us crucial, often life-saving, information about testing sites, shelter-in-place orders, school closures, government aid, and how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. That is why many states, Maryland among them, have designated local news outlets as “essential businesses” that are allowed to keep operating despite social distancing policies.
In a noble effort to keep the public informed, many local media outlets have removed their paywalls for COVID-19-related news, forfeiting desperately needed revenue. Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to place immense economic pressure on local news outlets and jeopardize their ability to function at all. Dozens of local publications have had to furlough reporters, reduce their publication frequency, or drop their print editions completely. This financial nightmare comes on the heels of more than a decade of hardship for local news.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only threat facing journalists today. All around the globe, reporters face harassment and persecution for their attempts to spread the truth and hold leaders accountable. Reporters Without Borders has determined that at least 229 journalists worldwide currently are imprisoned for their work. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 25 journalists were killed around the world in 2019, and at least six journalists and media professionals have been killed in the first four months of 2020 alone. Corrupt and powerful governments and individuals understand that free expression is a mighty tool against injustice, so they go to horrible lengths to stifle it.
One courageous reporter who was murdered for pursuing the truth was Washington Post journalist and United States resident Jamal Khashoggi. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded with high confidence, and the Senate unanimously approved a resolution stating, that Saudi government officials executed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi in 2018 at the behest of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. To this day, however, justice for this crime remains elusive. The Global Magnitsky Act, which I authored with the late Senator John McCain to combat human rights violations like this one, requires the U.S. Administration to declassify its findings regarding who was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death and to impose additional sanctions on the culpable parties. President Trump has refused to do so.
This failure to stand up for an American journalist an authoritarian regime silenced is just one example of how the Trump administration has turned its back on the freedom of the press. The President and his supporters have continuously tried to demonize and delegitimize news outlets whose reporting upsets them, to the point of labeling the media an “enemy of the American people”. As the illustrious journalist Edward R. Murrow so famously noted 66 years ago in responding to then-Senator Joe McCarthy’s (R-WI) vile smear tactics and intimidation.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men –- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
When the leader of the United States, a country devoted to principles of liberty and democracy, flouts the truth in this way, it reverberates all across the world to the detriment of free expression everywhere.
Between 2016 and 2019, the number of journalists imprisoned on spurious charges of disseminating so-called fake news more than tripled globally.
We Americans feel the impact of this vilification of the press much closer to home, too. I will never forget learning about the fatal shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland almost two years ago. In the most deadly newsroom shooting in American history, a man who was angry that the newspaper accurately and merely reported his guilty plea in a criminal harassment case stormed into the Gazette office with a gun and killed five people. Those individuals – Gerald Fishman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters – died defending one of the most sacred institutions in our country. They died protecting every American’s right to know the truth. But they and hundreds of other journalists worldwide should not have to die in the line of duty.
For the sake of our democracy and global human rights, we must do everything we can to eliminate the violence and repression news media face. The United States can help lead this effort by loudly voicing our support for the free press as a key component of an informed civil society and a government accountable to its people. That is why I am proud to co-sponsor Senator Menendez’s resolution in honor of World Press Freedom Day declaring the need for a truly free press and condemning threats to the freedom of expression around the world.
We can also demonstrate our commitment to a free press by remembering those journalists and media professionals who have lost their lives in the course of their duties. To that end, Senator Portman and I have introduced a bill (S. 1969) to authorize a national memorial to fallen journalists. The National Capital Region has numerous monuments and memorials to honor those individuals who have helped make our country stronger since its founding days. Currently missing from that honor roll is a memorial to reporters and other journalists, such as those at the Capital Gazette, who have sacrificed everything to protect the free, open, and transparent society that all people deserve. My hope is that Congress will pass the Fallen Journalists Memorial Act soon. Once we establish this memorial, we will have a visible reminder to pay tribute to these heroes not just once a year, but every day.”
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