By Edward Fitzpatrick
The bayonet scar on Omar Bah’s left hand reminds him of the dangers faced by journalists worldwide.
The scar reminds him of what dictators and other authoritarian leaders think of a free press.
The scar reminds him of how crucial it is for the United States to stand as a beacon of press freedom and democracy.
Bah, a journalist in his native Gambia, received the scar while being jailed, beaten and tortured after he tried to cover a secret trial. He fled the smallest nation on the African mainland, barely escaping with his life, and found refuge here in America’s smallest state, becoming the founder and executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, in Providence.
So Bah fully appreciates the toll reflected in a new report that shows the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide reached a record high in 2017. In its annual prison census, the Committee to Protect Journalists found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work — breaking the record set just a year earlier, when 259 journalists were imprisoned.
“It’s telling us that there is a lurking threat to democracy because the media are what holds leaders of government accountable,” said Bah, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University in 2014.
“The danger is that people will suffer and democracy will suffer,” Bah said. “I have seen same thing in The Gambia. At some point, the media become conditioned to follow the cue of the government and accept some sort of cult system, an autocracy.”
Given the worldwide context, it is all the more important for the United States to serve as an example of ample press freedoms and to apply pressure on nations that trample press freedoms. “The U.S. is looked up to as a beacon — the last hope for supporting and promoting democracy,” Bah said.
But since taking office, President Trump has relentlessly sought to delegitimize the press, tweeting about “fake news” 171 times and going so far as to call some of the nation’s leading media outlets “the enemy of the American people.”
“Those are the kinds of things I heard from the Gambian dictator – calling the press the enemies of my government, the enemies of Africa, the enemies of the country,” Bah said. “Eventually it leads to worse – to bad laws that make it difficult for journalists to do their work. If Trump had his way, he would change libel laws and probably jail journalists.”
The danger, he said, is that Trump’s attacks on the media are undermining the ability of the United States to apply pressure on other countries and to advocate for a free press and human rights.
“I think the example they are getting from Trump is basically giving permission for repression and attacks against the media,” Bah said. “He calls them ‘fake news.’ He calls media organizations ‘failing.’ Basically, he has succeeded in branding the media in a negative fashion. And the petty dictators around the world are following his lead.”
More than half of the 262 journalists jailed for their work in 2017 are locked up in three countries: Turkey (73), China (41) and Egypt (20).
“Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping,” wrote Elana Beiser, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ editorial director.
Trump’s “nationalistic rhetoric” and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” reinforces a framework that lets such leaders jail journalists, Beiser wrote. “Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of ‘false news,’ though modest, rose to a record 21.”
Trump’s catch phrase has caught on with the likes of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
When Amnesty International reported that 13,000 prisoners were killed at the Saydnaya prison between 2011 and the end of 2015, Assad dismissed the allegations as – you guessed it – “fake news.”
And Time reported that when he was shown an FBI report concluding that photos of bodies at his prisons were genuine, Assad dismissed that as “propaganda,” saying, “If the FBI says something, it’s not evidence for anyone.” (Can you imagine a president attacking the credibility of both the media and the FBI?)
Too often, blind partisanship shapes the discussion of Trump’s attacks on the media, as the most partisan voices on the political spectrum accuse the media of bias. But it’s important to remember that a vibrant free press is essential no matter which party holds power.
And it’s refreshing to see political leaders such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who understand what’s at stake. “@pressfreedom’s annual report shows record # of journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2017, including 21 on ‘fake news’ charges,” McCain tweeted on Dec. 13. “@POTUS must understand his harmful rhetoric only empowers repressive regimes to jail reporters & silence the truth.”
So what can done in the new year?
Bah called for the U.S. media to shine its powerful spotlight on the repression of the free press around the world, especially in countries such as Turkey, China and Egypt.
“And at home, the media must stand its ground,” he said. “The threats from the White House are a threat to the First Amendment and media everywhere. Refuse to be intimidated and continue to be independent and not be silenced.”
Now there’s a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.
Edward Fitzpatrick is director of media and public relations at Roger Williams University and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on the university’s First Amendment blog.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.