Joie Chen, a former CNN journalist who is Northwestern University’s Washington, DC, director of Medill Programs, was talking to the Global Seminar on Local News about how US journalists feel besieged.
She cited the murders of five newsroom staff last year at the Capital Gazette in Maryland.
She recalled the physical assault on a reporter by Greg Gianforte, who is now the Republican Representative for Montana.
And she noted President Donald Trump’s denunciations of the media as “the enemy of the people” and the White House’s brief revocation of reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials.
“We’re looking at an environment where things are, I believe, different than they were before, at least in the US,” she said.
“Perhaps not, as I have talked to my friends from other countries, perhaps this isn’t as new an experience for you.”
Chen, who runs the Medill School’s programmes in Washington, DC, moderates a session of the Global Seminar on Local News focusing on threats against journalists.
Indeed, the foreign journalists attending the global seminar had plenty to say about their own struggles against hostile governments, and also their confrontations with organised crime.
Their accounts made for a compelling final session of the June 25 seminar in downtown Chicago, co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung USA, the American office of a German foundation.
Economic and political pressure
The Local News Initiative, headed by senior associate dean Tim Franklin, is a project of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
Maria Dimitrova, editor-in-chief of ZOV News in Bulgaria, said there are worrying threats against news media in her country.
“In Bulgaria, we are experiencing different forms of pressure, economic and political,” Dimitrova said.
“Even now, a campaign against investigative journalists . . . is underway related to their major investigation exposing the misuse of European [Union] funds by politicians.”
Drug traffickers who have connections with law enforcement pose a particular danger to journalists, and Dimitrova said her life had been threatened.
“The police told me: ‘We can do nothing,’” she said.
Eduardo Garcia, editor of Mexico’s Sentido Comun business news outlet, said he doesn’t believe he is in any personal peril, but “many, many colleagues that I know are endangered, and they’ve killed many . . . Mainly it’s the drug criminal gangs that have gone wild.”
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed that Mexican drug traffickers are a major danger for news media.
“The drug cartels could not function without official protection,” Simon said.
“So wherever there are drug cartels, there is a network of corrupt police and politicians which protect them. And journalists always tell me that that’s the most dangerous [situation] to cover.
So if you write about a drug trafficking organisation, that’s dangerous. If you write about the officials protecting them, that’s deadly.”
Mexican journalist Eduardo Garcia says many of his colleagues have been threatened.
Garcia said the outlook for Mexico’s press is not all bad.
“We have a new president,” said Garcia, referring to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
“I sometimes like what I see. He has a press conference on a daily basis, which is amazing. No other leader in the world does that.”
Yet Lopez Obrador can be hostile toward the press too. And Mexico’s press must stick together to fend off threats from all corners, Garcia said.
“We should not let this rhetoric grow,” he said.
“We should highlight it as much as we can. We should unite as journalists regardless of whether we are more on the right or the left.”
Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher and CEO of Nigeria’s Premium Times, said violence against the news media is up in his country.
“Between 2010 and 2015, 65 journalists were attacked in Nigeria,” Olorunyomi said.
“Between 2015 and the first quarter of this year, it’s like 265.”
Among the reasons for the spike in attacks are that “we have an insurgency in the country”, and “corruption is rampant”.
Pana Janviroj, the Thailand-based executive director of the Asia News Network, said physical threats are not the only way powerful people try to intimidate the media.
“We see increased sophistication in harassing journalists,” Janviroj said.
As an example, he cited the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte sometimes bypasses the journalists and goes after the media owners instead, raising issues like tax enforcement.
Jasmin Off, deputy editor-in-chief of the Lubecker Nachrichten in Germany, said right-wing activists in her country have barred reporters from their party conventions.
Before the last elections, they set up their own “newsroom” and were active spreading their message on Facebook.
“They are not dependent on us anymore because they can publish their information just on every other channel,” Off said.
Simon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said local news outlets are particularly vulnerable worldwide.
“Local journalists have intimate relationships with the communities they cover,” Simon said.
“If the mayor or the local drug king or the corrupt official – sometimes they’re all working together – you get crosswise with one of them, they know where you live . . . Local journalists have nowhere to hide.”
Sharp increase in jailings
His group tracks killings of journalists, which are trending upward and totalled 54 last year, including the five at the Capital Gazette.
“What’s really troubling is that there was a very high number of journalists who were targeted for murder,” Simon said, as opposed to those killed in crossfire or other unintentional incidents.
Simon was troubled by Trump’s reaction to the Saudis’ killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president said his country’s strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia was more important than the life of one journalist.
“What message does that send to autocratic leaders around the world?” Simon said, and supplied his own answer:
“You can get away with murder. We’re not going to hold you to account as long as there’s some
strategic benefit to the US.”
Simon’s group also conducts surveillance of the jailing of journalists.
“I’m not going to put this at Trump’s feet,” Simon said, “but I will note that we’re seeing a sharp increase in journalists imprisoned around the world on ‘false news’ charges.”
Medill’s Chen was careful to note that distrust and anger towards the press has long preceded the rise of Trump.
“I am not going to jump on the bandwagon and say I think Donald Trump has destroyed the reputation of the media, because I think there are suspicions that have been happening over time,” Chen said.
Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative, says local journalism is a vital part of a functioning democracy.
A group of Medill students observed the seminar session, and the Medill Local News Initiative’s Franklin addressed them afterwards:
“I hope this didn’t scare you or turn you off. What I think it signifies and what we’ve heard here today is that local news is vital and central to democracy.
“And that’s why public officials are threatening journalists. That’s why folks in the community get upset with us.
“They know that the work we do is serious, and they know that it’s important, and they know it has impact.”
Mark Jacob, a former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.