It’s been a grim year for those seeking to pursue and preserve the truth.
Journalists around the world have been targeted and assaulted for their work. Some have paid with their freedom; others have paid with their lives.
Even the president of the United States — a country that has prided itself on having freedom of the press since its founding — has repeatedly attacked the media as “the enemy of the people.” Other world leaders have echoed this aggressive stance against the media, cracking down on reporters who have tried to hold them accountable.
We are living through nothing short of a “war on truth” — but it is in such a time that “professional truth seekers” are more important than ever, Time magazine declared in its latest issue.
For these reasons, Time magazine announced its 2018 Person of the Year is “the Guardians,” four individuals and one group — all journalists — who this year helped expose “the manipulation and the abuse of truth” around the world.
Among them: Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who was killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in October.
“The Guardians” also include the staff of the Capital Gazette, whose Maryland newsroom was attacked by a gunman in June; Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Rappler news website who has been made a legal target for the outlet’s coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; and journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been jailed in Myanmar for nearly a year for their work exposing the mass killings of Rohingya Muslims.
“As we looked at the choices, it became clear that the manipulation and the abuse of truth is really the common thread in so many of this year’s major stories, from Russia to Riyadh to Silicon Valley,” Time editor Edward Felsenthal said on the “Today” show Tuesday.
Of Khashoggi’s selection, Felsenthal said it was the first time the magazine had ever chosen someone no longer alive as Person of the Year. But it wasn’t so much the brutal details about his death as the work he had done most of his life — holding Saudi Arabia’s government accountable — that solidified his legacy.
“It’s also very rare that a person’s influence grows so immensely in death,” Felsenthal said. “His murder has prompted a global reassessment of the Saudi crown prince and a really long overdue look at the devastating war in Yemen.”
Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Washington Post, said he applauded Time for using its much-anticipated annual Person of the Year issue to highlight journalists' work.
“Time Magazine’s choice to honor journalists who have lost their lives or the freedom to do their jobs is a powerful reminder of the critical role journalists play and the increasing dangers they face,” Ryan said in a statement. “We hope this recognition will prompt our nation’s leaders to stand up for America’s values and hold accountable those who attempt to silence journalists who cover our communities, or in Jamal’s case, an oppressive authoritarian government.”
Time magazine also honored the staff of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, where five staff members were fatally shot in June when a gunman opened fire in their newsroom. Despite the tragedy, the Gazette’s surviving staff persisted in their work in the hours, days and weeks afterward.
“I can tell you this,” Gazette reporter Chase Cook tweeted hours after the shooting. “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
Time also recognized journalists around the world.
On the “Today” show Tuesday, Felsenthal emphasized that the two Reuters reporters who were being honored, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been imprisoned in Myanmar for almost exactly a year.
The two had been covering the mass killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the country last September, and in their reporting had found that Myanmar troops were complicit in the executions — part of a wave of killings, rapes and arson internationally condemned as ethnic cleansing of minority Muslims in the majority Buddhist country.
Police learned of their investigation and gave the two men documents in a meeting three months after the massacre. Shortly afterward, the reporters were arrested for possessing the documents, which they had not read, in a plot widely derided as a farce to punish them for their work — and as a warning to other reporters.
Their report was published in February, as they faced charges. In September, they were sentenced to seven years in prison despite testimony from an officer that the operation was a setup.
“The clear flaws in this case raise serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar,” the U.S. Embassy said a statement then, calling the verdict a “major setback” in expanding democracy in the country.
For her work in the Philippines, Felsenthal praised Rappler chief executive and journalist Maria Ressa as an “extraordinary individual” who has relentlessly exposed the thousands of extrajudicial killings taking place as part of Duterte’s war on drugs.
Rappler has distinguished itself for coverage of Duterte’s brutal drug war amid tightening access to news. A lack of online access has transformed Facebook into the de facto Internet in the Philippines, Ressa has said, allowing Duterte’s government to filter and restrict reporting and criticism.
Duterte has been emboldened by President Trump’s liberal use of the term “fake news” to discredit critical reporting, Ressa has said. Last year, Trump chuckled after Duterte cut off questions from American reporters, calling them “spies.”
“I think the biggest problem that we face right now is that the beacon of democracy, the one that stood up for both human rights and press freedom — the United States — now is very confused,” Ressa told Time.
Ressa has already received accolades for her work at Rappler. In June, the Committee to Project Journalists awarded her the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award.
And just as Time announced Ressa as one of its choices for 2018 Person of the Year, she became a free woman — at least for now. Ressa posted bail Tuesday after tax evasion charges seen as a thinly veiled attempt by Duterte to further silence reporters and critics.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, was third, while President Trump was runner-up, Felsenthal said.
“There’s always a strong case for the president of the United States, particularly this president,” Felsenthal said.
The magazine’s shortlist had included Trump, Mueller and Khashoggi.
It also had included the more than 2,000 migrant families separated at the U.S. border; Russian President Vladimir Putin; “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler; California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, sexually assaulted her when they were high school students; March for our Lives activists fighting for gun-control reforms; South Korean President Moon Jae-in; and former actress Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex.
Time has chosen a “Person of the Year” since 1927, though the distinction originally was called “Man of the Year.” The title is not necessarily a positive award but, rather, one that recognizes “the man, woman, group or concept that has had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.” For instance, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was named Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1938.
It was the second year in a row Time named a group of people, rather than one single person, for the honor. Last year Time recognized “The Silence Breakers,” the women (and some men) who came forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault and helped force a nationwide reckoning.
Among them were Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, the actresses whose stunning accusations against movie executive Harvey Weinstein helped lead to his downfall; and activist Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, along with the Hollywood star who amplified it on social media, Alyssa Milano.
Trump has had an on-again, off-again love affair with Time, often angling for the honors it hands out and criticizing the magazine as irrelevant when he feels snubbed. The president told a reporter last month he could not imagine anyone but himself being named Person of the Year this year.
Lindsey Bever, Abby Ohlheiser and Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report, which has been updated.