The Global Threat to Independent Journalism Has Come to the United States

Created: 28 February, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Here’s something that should chill you to your bones: the state of human rights, including journalistic freedom, is in noticeable decline all across the world.

Amnesty International describes this settling haze of authoritarianism as “Trump-led politics of hate” and attempts to, in the strongest possible terms, impress upon the world just how high the stakes are. Trump-style politics are “eating away at human rights around the world,” they say.

It wasn’t impossible to see it coming. Some experts warned we had just one year to prevent Trump’s America from pivoting to full-blown autocracy. But we still missed a lot of the signs — and some of them predate his administration by several years.

In 2011, the U.S. Army seized and then destroyed the life of Private Bradley Manning — now Chelsea Manning — for developing a conscience and then sending classified files to WikiLeaks. Many of those documents contained proof that the United States kills far more civilians abroad than they’re willing to admit.

On his way out the door, Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. Trump thinks she’s an ungrateful traitor.

A protestor named Desiree Fairooz was hauled to jail in 2017 for laughing out loud during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing at the idea that the man believes in equality. A couple months later, in mid-2017, a judge threw out her case.

Since there is no perceptible difference between Sessions’ and Trump’s sense of social and civic justice, and Trump chose Sessions for that job, Fairooz may as well have been laughing at Trump himself.

The world has for some time now, for better and worse, looked to the United States for moral leadership. We are now seeing the consequences of many, many years of American moral leadership, which has ranged from boringly corrupt to stupefyingly evil.

Trump, having styled himself a man of the people, has chosen the autocrat’s way out of a swamp’s worth of corruption: attempt to keep the public from finding out about it. One way to do that is by silencing leakers, his critics, and the press.

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Threats to Journalism Abroad

Amnesty International speaks broadly in the Al Jazeera video linked above about human rights. Independent journalism is just one piece of that puzzle. In recent months and years, we’ve seen a shift in America’s tone toward journalism as an institution that is truly worrying.

It is clear that neither CNN nor FOX nor MSNBC publish or broadcast anything that could be mistaken for the unburnished truth. Nevertheless — America has not seen an administration in some time that is as openly hostile to the rights of journalists as the Trump administration has been.

Under the guise of combating “fake news,” the president’s inner circle -- Jeff Sessions in particular -- is now actively intervening in the press subpoena process in the hopes of forcing journalists to expose their sources. The implications could be unprecedented in this country.

Indeed, journalists have spent the last year weathering what they call a “war of attrition” against basic journalistic freedoms. An independent journalist named Aaron Cantu was arrested and charged with “felony rioting” merely for covering the anti-fascist march that occurred simultaneously with Donald Trump’s swearing-in.

Authoritarianism has come to the United States. It used to be a quaint idea — one we swore we’d see coming. But we didn’t, and here we are. Our current predicament is both a consequence of a general state of disarray in the world and greatly contributing to it.

Authoritarianism Rising

Russia detains journalists by the baker’s dozen for covering protests. As we have established, however, this cannot be construed as “quintessentially Russian” when America has taken to practicing it with greater and greater regularity.

It is also irresponsible to lay this situation at the feet of Vladimir Putin himself — any more than it would be appropriate to claim Barack Obama personally ordered the imprisonment and inhumane treatment of Private Bradley Manning.

Vladimir Putin is certainly a complicated man. He’s been described by some who’ve known him for years as a thoughtful and fair-minded man who’s spent decades trying to bring his country’s oligarchs to heel. He is no paragon, though — 34 journalists have died in Russia since he took power in 2000.

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The truth about Russia is certainly more complicated than the paint-by-numbers caricature we get on television, but it’s clear Putin has not exactly created a stronghold for journalistic freedoms.

Frankly, there are so many cases of journalists getting imprisoned, or killed, or merely going missing, in a given year, all across the globe, that we can’t possibly get into them all here. Just know that the story as reported by mainstream news outlets frequently fails to describe the scope of this problem.

Stories with faces make them easier to follow, though.

Source: Luka Binniyat's Twitter account

Luka Binniyat

Luka Binniyat (seen above), an independent journalist from Nigeria, was personally singled-out for his critical coverage of the government. The story is a strange one, but it involves statesmen in Nigeria essentially framing Binniyat for “injurious journalistic falsehoods” and then jailing him on those false charges. This was all to keep him quiet about state corruption.

A public outcry saw him released, but he’ll find himself back in court in March.

The point is, there doesn’t seem to be any end to the reasons why either a dictator in the third-world or a president in the first-world might see fit to harass or imprison or ruin the lives of journalists, independent journalists, whistle-blowers and conscientious data leakers.

In fact, many of the American lawmakers who veered so quickly and violently toward authoritarian behavior like to tell us that “only bad guys have something to hide.” I know you see the irony — but do they?

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Photo Credit: wk1003mike / shutterstock.com

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