Barr: Good morning, everyone. I’m Cameron Barr, managing editor for news and features here at The Washington Post. Thank you to those of you joining us here today and to the many of those watching on our digital platforms. We are very pleased to host Reporters Without Borders, the world’s largest nongovernmental organization, specializing in defending media freedom.
In a few moments, Margaux Ewen, North America executive director for Reporters Without Borders, will take the stage with my colleague, Karoun Demirjian, to discuss the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Margaux’s organization does critical work in chronically the censorship, harassment, and violence that journalists around the world encounter every day in doing their jobs.
I want to say a word about the rhetorical climate we are compelled to withstand here and elsewhere. Just the other day, President Trump referred to some of our reporting as “fake and disgusting.” I can assure you that our reporting isn’t fake. It’s true. Although I suppose it’s a matter of opinion whether facts are disgusting or not. [LAUGHS] He called Maggie Haberman of The New York Times a “third-rate reporter.” She is, in reality, a first-rate one. And as we all know, the president has long maligned the press as purveyors of falsehoods and enemies of the people when we are neither.
Other politicians are embracing this harsh rhetoric. The president of the Philippines frequently insults and threatens journalists. The Czech president has called journalists hyenas and suggests that they should be liquidated. The now former primer minister of Slovakia took it up a notch, calling reporters idiotic hyenas. Compared with the intimidation and brutality some of our colleagues face, these are just words. I recognize that.
The problem is that presidents and prime ministers who deride the media set a tone that may sanction or endorse more thuggish tactics. Elected leaders should recognize that their publics have a right to independent sources of information. Politicians vexed by the press might vilify us, but reporters, editors, and producers are not the opposition. We are doing our very best to support or create free societies, and to empower engaged citizens.
Later this morning, we will hear from a panel of distinguished journalists whose discussion of press freedom will be moderated The Post’s Dana Priest. Dana’s tremendous work has held the American government to account for operating secret prisons, and for mistreating its combat veterans, to mention just two of the many stories she has covered. She demonstrates the logic that underlies the work of Reporters Without Borders, free and fair reporting strengthens democratic governance.
Now, let’s welcome to the stage Margaux and Karoun. [APPLAUSE]
Presentation of 2018 World Press Freedom Index
Demirjian: Good morning everyone. My name is Karoun Demirjian. I’m a Congressional reporter with The Washington Post focusing on national security policy, and a former Moscow correspondent. I’d like to introduce you to my guest today. Margaux Ewen is the North America executive director for Reporters Without Borders. And she is going to talk to us today about the newly released 2018 report on the World Press Freedom Index.
Before we begin, I just want to let our audience in the room and online know that if you have any questions, you can tweet them to hashtag #RSFIndex. Those will be questions for Margaux. And I will try to get to a few of them later in the discussion if we have time.
Just to start out though, so every year when this Press Freedom Report comes out, it seems to be a moment in which we look at this map, and we say, “Okay, the West, kind of feeling good about themselves. Doing pretty well. The rest of the world maybe needs a little bit of help moving along, generally speaking.” But as I understand it, that is not actually the story of this year’s report. So tell us a little bit about what’s going on behind these pictures and numbers.
Ewen: Exactly. So what we notice in the numbered ranking is that it’s a comparative analysis, which means that if you’re number one or number four on the list, it doesn’t mean you’re perfect in terms of protecting press freedom. It just means that you are better than the bad actors in the index. What the global trend is that we’re seeing is the indicator overall, globally, is showing more and more decline in protection of press freedom. The map is ever darker, darker meaning a situation very, very bad. And that’s due to the way we collect the data.
We have quantitative and qualitative analysis. We look at different factors like pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, infrastructure, legislative framework, and also the number of journalists arrested or killed in a given year to compile a score. And the score has worsened overall for worldwide press freedom.
Demirjian: So the score is behind is behind these numerical rankings—
Demirjian: —that we’re not looking at here, but those—
Ewen: The score behind each numerical ranking on the index, which the numerical ranking is comparative with other countries.
Demirjian: And those have fallen, it sounds like.
Ewen: Yes, many have fallen.
Demirjian: I want to dig into a little bit of why it will be difficult, I assume, to come up with one reason for an entire globe, but maybe we can go region by region. Let’s start with Europe, given that that is the one that we usually assume is going to be doing the best.
Ewen: Right. It is generally the region in the world where media freedom is the most protected. However, it has experienced the most decline in its score due to its indicators. And this is because a journalist has been murdered in Malta, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the country fell 18 places on the index this year. We’re also seeing a similar decline in Slovakia. A journalist was murdered in 2018, several months after Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, and they were both covering corruption as investigative reporters.
But you also have countries like the United Kingdom, which you think would be a great actor, but ranks at number 40, and that’s largely due to the adoption of the Investigatory Powers Act, which can severely limit reporters’ and whistle-blowers’ activities.
Demirjian: I see. What about in the Americas, because that’s also an area which usually does fairly well in this ranking?
Ewen: So in Latin America, we have a trend of violence impunity for journalist murders. Like, for example, in Mexico, where 11 journalists were killed in 2017, making it the second deadliest country for media workers after Syria. But you also have authoritarian policies, like in Venezuela. And then you have a good actor, like Costa Rica, but even Costa Rica fell in the index this year due to harassment of journalists.
Demirjian: And that’s the unique trend this year, to have that switch happen?
Demirjian: Looking further over, continuing on our global tour here, how about Africa. Talk to us a little bit about what’s going on.
Ewen: So in Africa, the major concerns are widespread internet shutdowns throughout the region in order to curb coverage of protests. This happens in places like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But also, we have jail terms or police harassment of journalists who are trying to cover the fight against terrorism, specifically Boko Haram in Mali and Nigeria.
Demirjian: And when you talk about the shutdowns of the internet, what are you referring to more specifically?
Ewen: I think it goes to shutdown of cellular service, but also any kind of use of internet, social media apps on people’s phones so that they can’t get information about where a protest is occurring, or have there been arrests, have there been violent assaults, have there been deaths at a protest. Things that journalists should normally be able to cover freely.
Demirjian: And that’s something that we talk about—or we have talked about in various coverage of what things are happening in the Middle East.
Ewen: That’s correct.
Demirjian: So is it a similar trend there?
Ewen: We do see similar trends in the Middle East, however, it does have the worst performance regionally in the index. And we do see repression of journalism through the use of antiterrorism or cyber crime legislation in places like Egypt, but also in the Gulf states. But then, of course, you have deadly countries for reporting, like Syria and Yemen, countries in conflict. Syria being the deadliest country still for journalists in 2017.
Demirjian: Right. And that makes sense given the general situation of what’s happening in Syria, that would be reflected for the press as well. I feel like Asia is almost too big of a region to ask you to paint one trend, but tell me what is going on in that very large part of the world that stands out to you.
Ewen: Right. If I could highlight one thing, it’s the exportation of China’s authoritarian model and control of information. China, as you know, is the biggest prison in the world for both professional and nonprofessional journalists. And two imprisoned bloggers, writers died in 2017 due to untreated cancer while they were in detention. But you know, this model has been exported to places like Cambodia, places like Vietnam, where there’s crackdown on independent bloggers. Bloggers in Vietnam now could face 15-year jail sentences for simply trying to relay information to the public.
Demirjian: Wow. So we went on a global tour there about all the different regions and the highlights of what’s going on. Mostly negative highlights at this point. But sticking with that theme, you have tracked what are the worst stories, basically, around the global as you’ve identified them. Tell me a little bit about why you chose these countries to represent the downslide in press freedom. And also, if there’s anything that they have in common as to why.
Ewen: Right. You know, just individually, as a little snapshot, Cambodia we downgraded 10 points because of their closing more than 30 independent media outlets, and their prime minister being very outwardly insulting of media freedom, and at time, even quoting the U.S. President Donald Trump. And so doing Malta, as we touched on, the downgrade being due to the murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who, before her death, experienced threats, intimidation, but also had multiple defamation cases open against her, some of which were still being litigated after her murder.
Demirjian: Just for the reporting that she was—
Ewen: Just for the reporting that she was doing to uncover corruption in Malta. And then in Venezuela, we wanted to highlight that decline given that everyone is pretty much familiar with what’s going on with the leadership under Maduro. The physical attacks against journalists who are covering protests are widespread, as well as destruction of equipment, but also foreign journalists trying to cover that are getting deported. And state censorship is coming from the telecommunications regulator.
As for Mauritania, it was really do to a piece of legislation, that it dropped 17 points, and that is a law that made apostacy blasphemy, punishable by death.
Demirjian: Okay. Yeah, that’s a fairly serious punishment to squelch what journalists are trying to do. And that was just passed in the last year?
Ewen: Yes. It was passed in 2017.
Demirjian: Okay. Well, that’s the bad news. I assume there is some good news as well.
Demirjian: You’ve tracked at least that there is some good news, even in a generally bleaker picture as to what’s going on across the globe. So tell us a little bit about these good news stories, and if there’s anything that we can learn from that as well.
Ewen: Of course. So we have noticed several different countries that have risen in the index and we’ve chosen to highlight Ecuador, Gambia, and South Korea, from three different regions in the world. Largely because they all share the same underlying trait. They all experienced regime change. And that led to an easing of tension between journalists and the head of the state, or state-owned media companies, like in South Korea. But also, promised reforms under new leadership, where it was very repressive in the past.
Demirjian: And it seems like you can’t really tell the story of what’s going on journalistically without telling the greater story about what’s happening politically in these countries, right? I mean, you just mentioned regime change. So given that, I mean, tell me a little bit about the relationship between the press and governments. In some of these countries where you have had regimes that are not changed, you still have strongman governments potentially. You still have places where the question of, what is a journalist, who is allowed to function as a journalist, isn’t really completely established or answered.
Ewen: That’s true. And Reporters Without Borders takes account of different types of media workers. So professional journalists who may be accredited in the traditional sense, but also citizen journalists, bloggers, and then media workers, like camera men, translators, et cetera. And you know, places where the state controls all media outlets, or all messaging associated with the regime, like in Vietnam, for example, where the only source of independent information comes from bloggers. Also, in China.
But you also have that increasingly in places like Azerbaijan or in Turkey, which, as we know, Erdogan was democratically elected, but he has wiped out independent journalism and the rule of law. More than 100 outlets have been closed, and it’s the largest prison in the world for professional journalists.
Demirjian: When that happens, what replaces it? Does anything replace it and would you even call it journalism?
Ewen: State propaganda.
Demirjian: And that is an issue in places that you just mentioned? Personally speaking, have been a former Moscow correspondent, when you talk about those things, my mind just goes to Russia. But you know the greater scope of what’s happening across the globe.
Ewen: Yes. And Russia, as you mentioned, is definitely one of the key examples. Their individual ranking may not have worsened this year, but they were already so low to begin with, and their score actually worsened. And there are now more journalists and bloggers detained now in Russia than at any other time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. So that’s really telling.
And a place like Egypt as well, which also staying constant in its place in the index, its score has also worsened. It prosecutes journalists now for practicing terrorism, as I mentioned earlier. But it’s seeking the death penalty for a notable photojournalist named Shawkan. That’s a worsening of the situation. But there’s also multiple NGO websites have been blocked, including Reporters Without Borders’s website. And so that attributed to its score’s further decline this year.
Demirjian: You just talked about two countries where it seems like the situation is fairly intrenched. I assume people are trying to do something to shake those situations out of that intrenchment, but is that—what is going on to try to do that? Or is this is something you have to just kind of watch and say, “Isn’t this a shame that we can’t seem to improve these situations in certain countries that have now a multi-year history of repressive tactics towards journalists”?
Ewen: Well, being an advocacy group, the index that we publish ever year ranking 180 countries, is used as an advocacy tool. We do use it to denounce repression of media freedom around the world. And so we hope that we can pressure these governments into facilitating change. And we have seen some countries react to our index.
For example, Canada, which before this year’s index, we had downgraded over the past two years prior 14 places. It fell 14 places on our index due to spying on journalists, trying to meddle with their confidential sources. And what we saw was the index propelled government representatives and law makers to make change. They adopted a universal press shield law at the federal level in Canada. They set up a commission of inquiry to look into journalist spying. However, we still need to see that they will really apply that law because there are still quite a lot of problems in Canada. So we will continue to use the index to pressure countries like Canada into facilitating positive change.
Demirjian: Does that work best with countries that seem to care about their reputation that way? Could you translate that experience of having actually affected a good switch to some place like Vietnam, or places that you listed before that seem to be a little bit more resistant to the impression that they’re putting out there for—[OVERLAPPING]
Ewen: Well, when we deal with different governments, where we think we can put pressure on repressive regimes, we do always use the index as a great way to kind of anchor where they sit in the spectrum of respecting press freedom and activities of journalists. And we do think that it can play a naming-and-shaming affect on certain governments that still care about their reputation internationally.
Demirjian: Just in the last day, I think, our colleague, Jason Rezaian, who will be on the next panel, who’s coming up, had a story that he pointed out about how Turkey has more journalists behind bars. You mentioned how there are various countries that are jails, basically, for journalists because they’re trying to do their jobs. And that that has resulted in a dip, in a slide in the rankings of these countries. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on? I believe you mentioned China also is of issue there. Specifically in those countries where we’re actually talking about imprisonment of journalists, and why, or if, that’s actually worsening, why that’s the case?
Ewen: So it seems that, as we reported, a decline in the number of killings compared to the prior year, when we did our annual report at the end of 2017, that more and more journalists are being imprisoned. Where more and more journalists are feeling like it’s unsafe for them to report in certain areas of the world, so they’re no longer putting themselves as much at physical risk.
But when we do see these lengthened jail terms, like, for example, in Vietnam, a 15-year jail sentence for bloggers, that’s an uptick of repression we had seen in prior years. In China, this lack of medical care for bloggers or writers who are sick with cancer, and not able to adequately treat it. I mean, that’s just a symbol of how deeply intrenched this desire to lock people up and throw away the key is.
Demirjian: Is it working, from what you’ve seen, just kind of tracking what the activists are in those countries, and the journalists who are trying to work around some of these laws? What’s your assessment of how much of a chilling affect it’s actually successfully having?
Ewen: Well, I think that many people in these countries have resulted to self-censorship, or have decided to work in exile. A country like Burundi, for example, which experienced great violence during the attempted coup in 2015, but since then many journalists are working outside of the country for fear of their lives.
Demirjian: We talk a lot in this country—I mean, this is clearly a global survey.
Demirjian: We’re sitting in Washington, D.C. though, and we like to think that we have an influence on the way the rest of the world can work. So what is your assessment though of how we’re welding that influence. Are we doing what we should be doing? What do you think about what we are doing right now, both at home and abroad?
Ewen: So what we’re seeing here in the United States is a declining trend of respect for press freedom. So we’ve now slipped another two places on the index to 45 out of 180 countries, which is pretty shocking and disappointing for the country of the First Amendment. But we were already on this downward trend before our current president took us a little bit further. So we had a crackdown on whistle-blowers under the Obama administration. He was tight-lipped on the messaging coming out of the White House, and difficult to really be fully transparent about his administrations activities.
But journalists were also getting arrested while covering protests around the country. North Dakota, but also Black Lives Matter protests. That trend has continued and worsened under Trump, but he has added this extra layer of outward hatred of journalism and media freedom, and disrespect for the First Amendment. That comes from his comments, you know, calling journalists “enemy of the American people,” calling for certain media outlet’s licenses to be revoked.
Demirjian: The examples Cameron gave in his opening speech.
Ewen: Exactly. And we’re all familiar with them. But also, you know, when he retweets violent memes of journalists from CNN getting assaulted, and then you see physical assaults of journalists. And we had Greg Gianforte, on the eve of his election to Congress, in Montana, assault a journalist from The Guardian. And then he won that election. So that’s really shocking that someone who assaults a journalist could win an election. And it’s probably because this rhetoric is coming down from the highest office in the country.
So what does that mean internationally? It means that we are not setting the example that we used to set at home, that might have made us more credible when we ask for other countries that are generally repressive of press freedom to respect the role of journalists in a democracy.
Demirjian: Have you seen that actually manifesting itself? I mean, we talk about we’re supposed to be setting a good example. And certainly that is a noble thing to say, but have you actually seen examples of where—because your assessment is that we’re not right now—that’s actually having an affect on what we’re hearing coming out of other world leaders, or other parts of the globe?
Ewen: Yes, definitely. We’ve seen Erdogan in Turkey mimic Trump’s remarks, as well as the prime minister in Cambodia. In the Philippines, Duterte, and Trump, have both called journalists “sons of bitches.” So we know that there is a correlation there. And there was also a recent story about the U.S. ambassador in Uganda trying to kind of highlight the concerns for press freedom in that country. And the press minister of Uganda basically said, “Your president can’t even take questions at a press conference, so please don’t lecture me on our press freedom here.”
So that’s really telling, I mean, that that can have a direct impact on our diplomacy efforts to encourage the release of journalists.
Demirjian: Indeed. Just to remind everybody that if you have any questions to tweet to us the hashtag is #RSFIndex. I’m just wondering though, stepping back from these very specific discussions we’ve been having about countries and what they are doing, aren’t doing, what is happening, that isn’t happening, if you look again at just the full survey of everything from this report, clearly the opening takeaway was not the greatest of new. But what’s your advice, I guess, or your message that you want to kind of leave the audience with, leave us with, about what your predictions are, or what your prescriptions might be for improving the situation globally in the future?
Ewen: Well, I think the public needs to realize that journalists are playing a public-service role. And at the end of the day, journalists, media workers, bloggers, they are all taking these risks to report the news for the public’s benefit. And the public needs to stand up and fight for their freedom to do their job. Journalism is an essential pillar of any democracy. And as we see, democracy is on the decline in this latest edition of the index, more on decline than they have been in the past. We really need citizens to stand up and fight for the right of journalists to do their reporting because it affects their right to know.
Demirjian: And is that something that you’re able to translate that message, you think, directly to those citizens, or is this kind of incumbent on the journalists in these local places to try to just get that message out?
Ewen: Well, I think that citizens do play a role in supporting journalism either by purchasing a local news outlet, or sharing articles that they find interesting with their surrounding entourage, I think that that’s important. And to raise their voice when people are detained for doing their job, or when they’re killed and we need to have a credible and independent investigation into their murder.
Demirjian: Anywhere in the world?
Ewen: Anywhere in the world.
Demirjian: Right. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. So I just want to thank Margaux for being here and sharing her insights and expertise with all of us. And turn it over to my colleague, Dana Priest, who will be leading the next conversation. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]
Demirjian: Actually, excuse me. There is one more thing that I did promise Margaux. There is a specific journalist that we want to make sure we don’t forget to mention. Somebody who is rather close to The Washington Post family, actually. And I want to just let Margaux say a few words about that before we actually depart the stage.
Ewen: Thank you so much, Karoun, for bringing that up. I just wanted to take a moment to recognize Austin Tice, the last American journalist detained in Syria in 2012. I would like to see him home safely soon. Just as Jason Rezaian, Washington Post’s own reporter who was detained in Iran, came to this very room for a welcome back party, we hope that we can have the same celebration at Austin’s return. If you want to tweet support for the family, you can always tweet hashtag #FreeAustinTice. Thank you everybody.
Demirjian: Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]
Perspectives on Freedom of the Press Around the Globe
Priest: Hello, everybody. Thank you for coming. I’m very happy to be here at this—well, urgent discussion on not just press freedom, but empowering people in their countries through our news, our real news. I want to first make a reminder, we’re going to take questions this session, and you can send your questions to hashtag #RSFIndex, and we hope to get to them at the end, or actually, we’ll intersperse them.
I’m Dana Priest. I’m been here for many years. I now teach journalism also at the University of Maryland. I’d like to introduce the people with me. This is Jesus Equivel. He is the Washington correspondent for Proceso. And probably the leading expert on Mexican drug cartels. This is Alisa Sopova. She is a journalist from Ukraine, and she’s here in the United States on a fellowship at Harvard University. Welcome.
And our very special guest Jason Rezaian, wasn’t here last year. Oh, boy. Jason was our correspondent in Iran until 2016 when he was arrested and spent 544 days in prison. Now he’s the global opinion editor here and very, you know, welcome. I’ll get it together. [LAUGHTER] And finally, Margaret Talev who’s the chief correspondent at the White House for Bloomberg News. And also the president of the White House Correspondents Association. So probably the person who has to deal with the White House the most on behalf of the press corps. So very happy to have you here. I’m sorry that you have to be here. [LAUGHTER]
Okay. So I wanted to start with Jason because he wasn’t here before, when we had this last year. And you know, if you could just talk briefly about what it’s like to be here, and what it’s like to now have a president who’s not a fan of yours or ours.
Rezaian: I think, first and foremost, I’m really happy to be back to work. I started back here at The Post in January. And I never expected that I’d be writing so much about press freedom issues around the world. I didn’t think that there would be the need when I came out of prison in Iran. I didn’t expect the sort of combative environment that we experience now in town. But it feels right to be writing about these issues, and having the opportunity to lend my voice to what I think is a very important problem. I’m glad that RSF continues their great work.
But as we know, the situation continues to devolve around the world. So hopefully, our collective efforts can create a better environment for our colleagues around the world.
Priest: Yeah. And Alisa, you, as a Ukrainian, you know well Russia disinformation or just disinformation by a state that is trying to sway public opinion and consolidate power. Can you talk a little bit about the efforts in Ukraine that we might use here to identify truly fake news and disinformation? I mean, a lot of us here are trying to figure out how do we get out of this bizarre situation, where people actually use the word “fake” when it comes to traditional news media.
Sopova: Unfortunately, I cannot give you good advice based on the Ukrainian experience. I can give you advice of how you probably should not do it, based on Ukrainian experience, unfortunately. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, we know in journalistic circles, we know Ukraine now as like the first ground for Russia do all this massive information attack.
And the big danger for journalism is that when you see the informational space being bombarded with all this bizarre stuff, the first reaction that often, in our case, occurs is that you try to counterbalance this not with some objective, good, truthful reporting, but with something that you believe is good for your side. So if Russia is saying this, we just should say the opposite, even if it’s not true.
For example, right now, we are having sort of a scandal connected with the illegal detention centers in Ukraine, which Amnesty International has written in its report, and it was proven that it exists in Ukraine; that they’re detaining people who they assume are connected with separatists and keep them illegally. And then the Hromadske TV channel made a documentary about it. And now there is a whole shitstorm with this—authors of this documentary are facing.
Priest: Is that a Ukrainian word? [LAUGHTER]
Sopova: Yeah, because if you are reporting on something wrong with the Ukrainian government is doing, if it is true, it is viewed as a treason. So like you should report for the sake and for the good of your country. Or like in some other case, for like your side. So I think there is, in this situation, when there is a lot of pressure from one side, it’s very important to be careful, to not fall for the other extreme. But to try to like keep being a good journalist, not just justify it with some other side.
Priest: Yeah. I was thinking of organizations like StopFake, which has an English version, which was really on the frontline of identifying disinformation and sharing it with the public as such. Jesus, your situation is similar in the sense that reporters get killed, but not similar in the sense that it’s usually perpetrated by drug cartels and their friends in power in the government. Did the drug cartels, in that sense, share the same goal as some of the authoritarian political leaders? What are they trying to do by killing journalists?
Esquivel: Absolutely. They’re trying to close the door to the truth about their business and their relationship with the government, with the politicians, local politicians, local police, and the federal government. It’s too sad. To be a reporter of Mexico, the second deadliest country in the world to do journalism, after Syria. And to see that when a colleague has been arrested, or disappear, or kill, the federal government don’t care. You have to use the power of the social media, the people to go to the streets, to organize a protest in order to get the attention of the authorities to that.
Last year, 12 journalists were killed in Mexico. So far this year, three. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, being done by the government that to us, journalists, satisfy what their investigations are doing. We don’t believe in the investigations by the government about the killings of journalists. And believe me, the drug cartels, I think, are taking advantage of that. They’re being in the border, and you know what I’m talking about.
Priest: So do you see any light in this darkness?
Esquivel: There is always hope. And we are hoping that the next president of Mexico—we’re going to have elections on July 1st—is going to at least to put more attention to the issue. So far, I can tell you, sadly, there is no hope until the new president arrives to Mexico and see what offers to us.
Priest: Yeah. It’s really astonishing that this is right next door.
Esquivel: It is.
Priest: Okay, thank you. Margaret, it was sort of unthinkable that we would have an American reporter here representing American reporters. You know, can you talk a little bit about how the administrations attitude toward the press has actually affected people overseas, both the people that are close to the president, and reporters overseas?
Talev: That’s a great question. I do think when we talk about the administration’s impact on the safety of journalists that there’s two ways to look at it, and one is the relative safety of being American political reporter and whether that’s changed. And the second is its impact overseas. And I think the impact has been stronger overseas, or is potentially more threatening overseas.
Early in the administration, domestically, you could feel the attention ratcheting up at some events that you were covering. Political rallies, for example. There were a number of times when I or some of my fellow colleagues just didn’t feel safe. It seemed like a situation where the crowd was whipped up and things could turn quickly. And that’s not normal for—being a journalist covering politics, there’s always partisan lines been a wide acceptance that reporters are in the room to get the sense of the crowd, and to share that information with people, and that’s of value.
So that’s worrisome. And the kind of threats that are mostly social media rhetoric, but often beyond the pale. That is ratcheted up. Inside our membership, the WHCA has created a committee this year on reporter safety so that people can—it’s voluntary—but so that they can come report to the board if they’ve been threatened, or how they’ve been threatened, and whether it’s something they need to contact the authorities. That’s like a new mechanism that we’ve set up. I don’t feel great telling you that, but it’s true, and hopefully it’s been of service.
But there is an impact overseas also that does concern me. And it is part of the way that U.S. presidents have always kind of construed the rhetoric about the free press and the First Amendment is to signal to other countries that freedom of the press is kind of one of those pillars of a rule-of-law society; that the U.S. wants to encourage and, on some level, expects. Even if it’s not a direct threat, the idea that aid could in some way be tied to this, that expectations and U.S. alliances revolve around it. The thought has been it at least has some potential positive affect, right?
I mean, does the U.S. have alliances with countries where press freedoms are not protected? Yes. Has that existed with past presidents from both parties? Yes, of course it has. So we all know that. But it’s different to stand side-by-side with a leader known for repressive and violent tactics and laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, that involve—
Priest: About assassinating a reporter.
Talev: Yes, that’s right. And so it’s tremendously troubling. And it’s something that personally I worry about a lot and that our members worry about a lot also. You asked another question too, which is about the attitudes of the administration toward the press. And I think that’s a more complicated question. I really do. I think there is a real range inside every administration, and it’s true of this one also, about the people from the career employees to political appointees, how they feel about the press. And there are many inside every administration, including this one, who believe that the press is a fundamental part of democracy and needs to be protected, and that there needs to be an open and honest working relationship with the press. Because the press represents the public, and it’s a major component of democracy.
I don’t want to speak for the president. I can’t get inside his head. I am not convinced that he wishes ill things or violence on anyone in the press corps. It’s not my sense that that’s the metric by which he makes his decisions. I also don’t have any reason to believe that he feels that it is his responsibility to protect us, or to champion us here or overseas. I just don’t—he has not demonstrated that he thinks about it in those terms. And when you’re interacting with the president or top officials in a journalistic capacity, off camera, behind the scenes, the relations are often very cordial, and are often successful in terms of asking something and get an answer back, or having a dialogue.
What you see on the camera is—what’s actually happening is a lot more complicated than that. But what the public sees, what foreign governments see, what foreign leaders see is important too, and that’s what worries me a lot.
Priest: Thank you. And I wanted to follow up with all of you on death threats. I mean, it is the first time I think that there are many reporters, who cover the White House in particular and covered the campaign, who actually received death threats, and took them seriously enough to go to their company security people and that sort of thing.
Talev: And the Secret Service, and the FBI, and local police authorities. Absolutely.
Priest: Do you know of any actual arrests, or people who were visited by the FBI or law enforcement to make sure that they were not serious?
Talev: Yeah. That’s a great question, but I can’t really speak to it from here.
Talev: But I think what we have encouraged all of our members who receive any kind of threat that chills them or worries them—that they take beyond just someone spouting off on an email, who they’ll never meet—is to go ahead and contact the Secret Service, the FBI, the police, the White House, to let them know, to report it, to reach out to CPJ, to add it to that database that’s being kept on a national level. Because you cannot address the problem without documenting it, and we’re now all in an era where we’re documenting it.
Priest: And so Margaret is referring to Press Tracker, which is documenting all the arrests, the assaults, and things like that against journalists in the United States. Could I ask the three of you also about death threats? I mean, is it that there’s just certain reporters that governments don’t like the personality? Or what is it that they—why do certain reporters that you have known get death threats? And, Jason, I don’t know if there’s actually been reporters who are killed. They’re usually countries either in prison or they kill.
Priest: So I guess threats of imprisonment. Why are certain reporters targeted?
Esquivel: Well, I know my colleagues in Mexico, they have received death threats and some of them been killed. Without naming—I want to talk about a colleague who was doing stories about the federal government trying to control the advertisement on the media in order to get more control of what the newspapers, the radio and TV stations so that—
Priest: So this is publicly funded advertisements? Okay.
Esquivel: Yes, absolutely. And there is also a law in Mexico, it’s going to be—start, hopefully, soon. This reporter gets some documents about the amount of money the federal government was spending on that advertisement. And he went, after receiving the documents, he starts talking to his editor about to publish this story. And that night he went to his apartment to sleep, and then his phone starts ringing with not recognizing the number that was calling. And he get the call and said, “Your mother is in a taxi cab.” And his mother is 80-something years old. I’m talking about 11 p.m. And then another call in said, “If you don’t give up the documents, your mother is going to be dead.” And he was calling home to find out about her mother. And her mother was asleep.
So he went out and next day, he went to work. When he get back, the documents, personal computer, and other stuff in his apartment disappear. And then, he reports to the police—the authorities, the police, and they went. They’re trying to help to find something. Nothing. The police in Mexico is just a waste of time.
And the cameras outside the building find out it was a car parking in front of his apartment. And he started looking to the plates and everything on the car. And he has his own resources, and he finds out it was like our CIA agents, called CISEN, in Mexico. Looking through his apartment. So he went directly to see him, at the car, and said, “You know I lost my computer and personal stuff last night.” And he said, “And what do you think? I am a policeman or something? That I work for the government?” “Yes, you do. What are you doing here?” And he says, “Just making sure that you don’t publish what you planned to publish.”
I’ll give you an example of what’s the pressure Mexican journalists live out. But very quickly, in terms of politicians with real power or drug cartels, they don’t trust you. If they want to stop you, they’re going to kill you. Anywhere. And they do that. We have proofs of that—112.
Priest: And it’s mainly because you’re reporting on their—
Esquivel: Their activities.
Priest: —trafficking, yeah.
Esquivel: Their relationship with the government or the local police or the state police. Because they worked with her. Otherwise, there should be no narco traffic on the border.
Priest: Yeah. Ukraine, in Donbass in particular, there have been reporters who have been murdered. Do they get a warning beforehand? And why have they targeted certain reporters?
Sopova: Yeah, it depends. After listening to the previous speakers, I just see how relative our lesson is. Because I know that journalists there feel very threatened. But from my perspective, when I listen to this, I’m like, “Come on people.” It’s like—
Sopova: —it’s not that bad [OVERLAPPING] but when I listen about journalists in Mexico, I’m like, “Come on, I have nothing to really complain about.”
Sopova: Yeah. In Ukraine, the whole society is so traumatized and polarized now. That basically, anyone who speaks out more or less, gets some kind of death threats, like everyone—I got one recently too. Mostly are not as much from government as from like some random people who dislike what you say or from these ultra-right groups or whatever. Usually it’s not really—it doesn’t really mean that they’re going to kill you.
But we indeed had a case of journalists being killed in downtown Kiev, as recently as in 2016. It was Pavel Sheremet. And still, their investigation didn’t get anything and there is no will to investigate it probably.
Priest: What was she reporting on?
Sopova: Oh, I don’t remember that story very well. Yeah, but the problem is that we have two parts of the country that is government control and nongovernment control. And on government-controlled side journalists are still being killed and you can get threats and everything, but on the noncontrolled territory it’s pretty much impossible to report at all. And even though I’m always—because I’m from there and I see that there are like 4 million people living there and nobody basically cares about what’s happening to them. I’m always trying to advocate for that they should report somehow on that. But basically, it is impossible. You have to work undercover. You cannot get any access. You have to pretend that you are not journalist but like you are talking to your neighbors or something. And then if your name appears in some media, it’s very, very likely that you will just be like illegally arrested and disappear. There is a bunch of people who are currently missing.
Priest: And you’re talking about the Russian-occupied areas of eastern and Crimea?
Sopova: Yes. Yes, but it’s like not Russia who officially takes responsibility for that, right?
Sopova: So there are these guys who obviously consult with Russia on what they’re doing. But pretty much I’m sure they take decisions on whom to detain on that level by themselves.
Rezaian: I think it’s worth mentioning also that it’s so much easier today to transmit information and images than it’s ever been before. Even in places like Iran, where media and communications are more filtered and limited than they are in other places. So I think it becomes harder for people in power or organized crime to disrupt the process of getting messages out. And really it’s sort of a war of attrition. You know they’re going to keep doing whatever they need to do to, as Jesus said, stop somebody from getting their message out. And the stakes invariably become higher and higher.
Talev: It’s interesting. I mean, I think in the U.S.—and this is because in the U.S. this is still largely a debate of ideas; it’s not the same degree of life and death, on any level, as it is in Mexico or in Ukraine. There is, on the one hand, with the proliferation of, you know, social media tools, any person—no matter what their day job is, no matter where they live—can be acting as a journalist—
Talev: —in terms of spreading information. And yet the debate in Washington has often been about what the press as kind of a business entity wants or expects in terms of freedoms or in terms of protection.
The one thing that I think is really important for journalists to emphasize—because there’s obviously, in America, there’s a disconnect between large segments of society and journalists feeling that we’re representing all Americans, that we are the public; that we are just a segment of the public whose job it is to share news and information. But there’s the disconnect and a feeling like that the press is like a business entity. And when we’re talking about the First Amendment or press protections and why it’s important, it really is to protect everyone. Because the distance from whether a journalist gets, you know, diminished or in trouble for sharing critical information and whether a member of the public loses their freedoms for questioning government or sharing critical information, it seems unimaginable in America; it seems like, of course, the public an always criticize their government. It’s, you know, a fundamental part of what being an American is about.
But in so many other places around the world, that is just like—you’re just an average person sitting at home around the dinner table and are afraid to talk about what you really think—to raise questions, to protest, ask questions, to support an opposition candidate—for fear that you could be jailed, that your family could be punished. It’s all the same continuum. It is all the same issues.
Esquivel: Yeah, can I add something to that? Yeah. Talking about mechanism to protect journalists, in my country, for example, in Mexico, is a joke.
Priest: Could you explain to everybody what—
Esquivel: Yeah. We have the government approve on a special—
Esquivel: No bodyguard. A mechanism that you can call them and say, “I’ve been a under a threat,” or whatever. And they always get late; they don’t protect you. And the other effect that is sometimes—you don’t need to receive a real death threat by a politician or a premier organization—sorry. You get, for example, a message on your phone, giving you the address of your mother, your brother. And that you know what it is.
Talev: You know exactly what it is, yeah.
Esquivel: And there is also, in the small newspapers or radio stations, local—I work for a national magazine. And you’re reading one of the small newspapers, local newspapers in the border. There is also this self-censorship.
Esquivel: Because you don’t want your mother to be killed, your brother, your friend—and you’re afraid of them. And you know that if they decide to kill you, they will do it. Sooner or later. I have cases of friends, they were joking about, “Oh, they will not touch me.” And they are dead.
Priest: Yeah. In Mexico they have snitches inside the newsroom and everyone, even the editors and chiefs, know they are. And their role is to make sure that certain things that have to do with the cartels’ interests are not published. And so it is actually an open censorship in the sense that no one is hiding this. No one—you know, none of the bad guys are hiding this. Which is just remarkable.
In Iran, I mean, there’s a power play—
Priest: —right? Between moderates and hardliners. And in your case, I would assume that the hardliners were behind your arrest, as many arrests.
Rezaian: Yeah. I mean, that’s what it looks like. You know, I was taken by the IRGC intelligence unit at a time that, you know, negotiations between the government of Iran and world powers and including the United States, over their nuclear program, was at its height. And, you know, one can only come to the conclusion that it was a highly politicized move, and also one that had the effect of quieting journalists working in Tehran. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that, you know, since I was arrested on July 22nd, 2014, the number of Tehran byline stories has decreased dramatically.
Priest: Yeah. Because they saw the message that you got.
Rezaian: Yeah. Oftentimes this is about sending a message to other people working in the industry as well.
Priest: Do you know whether people who are targeted get a threat to cool it or is it—?
Rezaian: Look, I mean, I think over the years we’ve seen other journalists in Iran and other countries be arrested, and oftentimes when you hear their stories afterwards there was threats to cool it.
Priest: Margaret, we had a situation just last night apparently, that The Post Jose DelReal was barred from an event, a Trump event, and patted down by police. Is this something that you have seen often? The barring of journalists from certain events?
Talev: Since the president was inaugurated and became the president, no, it’s really not in terms of credentialing for press events. We have not had a lot of problems. During the campaign, of course, as you all know, there were issues about clearance and who could get into events and who was invited and credentialed to attend events. But the credentialing process at the White House and for White House events has been—for official government events, has been pro forma and involved sign-ups and all the traditions of the past.
Priest: Same with events?
Talev: Yeah. But these are issues that part of the association’s role is to make sure that there is kind of open and even and fairhanded access to coverage. And that journalists are not, you know, excluded from public events and efforts that should be public, by virtue of anything they’ve done or written. So we always encourage not just members but nonmembers who are covering any White House to be in touch with us if they have concerns about this.
Priest: Yeah. And that was an audience question, so it would be a good time now to send more questions because we have about 10 minutes left. And you know, with that time, I wanted to try to get us to do some problem-solving. And if you could, you know, wave your magic wand and get people to do something that might actually be helpful, what would that be? Starting here, in Ukraine. What would that be? What would you want Ukrainians to do and what would you want Americans to do?
Sopova: Yeah, that’s a great question because looking at places like Ukraine, there is coverage inside of it and then there is international coverage of it. And speaking of coverage, within Ukraine, that would be like really very important to try to establish some dialogue between the people who disagree on political issues. And not just try to be journalists on one side and journalists on the other side fighting each other. But to try to ask some questions based on common sense and on what is better for our society generally.
And speaking of international coverage, I think there is a sort of a problem that—and for Ukraine, it is exactly a problem now, and for many other places probably, too. That, you know, events—everything is so fast, and this informational environment moves so quickly that things get into fashion and out of fashion very quickly. And so Ukraine goes into fashion and everyone was reporting on it, and now like everyone forgot about it.
And things are still happening and people are still dying every day, and it’s still unresolved, and nobody is really interested in reporting about it. Like, everyone was reporting about the City of Aleppo and what was happening there. What is happening there now? Like nobody really knows. Like Rakhine or Rohingya crisis also a couple year ago everyone was writing about it. Those people are still there and something is happening to them. So I would really encourage my colleagues to sometimes look back at things that you’ve been covering a few months ago, and follow up not just, you know, drop them after they fall out of fashion.
Rezaian: Yeah. Two things I’d like to say. I mean, I think here in the U.S., we can do a better job of leading by example, and getting back to some of our previous principles about protecting free expression, and supporting it around the world. And, you know, to Alisa’s point about continuing coverage on various stories, for me, at this point I’m looking at a lot of these issues of attacks on the free press around the world. And, you know, I’ve only been at this for three months, but there is a very clear through line around the world, right now. And I would love to see other journalists, here in the U.S. and around the world, write more about this and what it really means. Because I think we’re still figuring that out.
Esquivel: Yeah. Well, I think in the case of Mexico, it’s a mission impossible, in the short term. The problem is corruption that we have. And to say that we’re going to solve the problem in a couple of years, the corruption in the government, it’s a joke. I don’t believe that. But we need the support of the other colleagues, especially from the U.S.
I remember at Ciudad Juarez, a few years ago, every American journalist wants to be covering Ciudad Juarez, and now nobody talks about Juarez. And as a White House correspondent to foreign correspondent, I want to tell you something, that we have a group of like 30. And you know that.
Esquivel: And we—sometimes we talk about what’s the purpose to go to the White House to cover everything.
Esquivel: We don’t get a chance to ask the question. And if we do, they don’t know. They don’t care. And they never get back to you.
And when your audience asking you, “How is to cover the White House?” I’ve been here since 1998, and believe me, I believe the Clinton administration was so great to be a journalist covering the White House. And in this case it’s like, I really don’t know how to explain how is covering the White House now.
Priest: And yet this immigration crisis that the president talks a lot about, I mean, isn’t that related to the safety issue in Mexico?
Esquivel: It is.
Priest: In Central America?
Esquivel: It is. Absolutely, right. When you analyze what he’s talking about, you find out as a Mexican, as a Central American, people—U.S. people who live on the border—that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. [LAUGHTER]
I remember the day after he’s already in the capital, I went to Arizona, and I went to Douglas, Arizona. It’s a small town right there, close. I went there from Mexico, in the State of Sonora, and the mayor, he said, “I support the president. I support Trump.” He said, “You know, since he starts talking about the wall, the Mexicans who cross every day the border to buy stuff right here in my town are left. So it’s we’re going to be a ghost town in the next couple of months.” And when he’s talking about the wall—and I know the border very well.
Esquivel: You know I know. I always look to the Arizona desert and said, “Oh, this is going to be a good place to have a wall with a name built by Donald Trump.” And the drugs crossing in the other side, the Mexicans doing whatever they want, and he doesn’t know what is the real importance of the trade in the border.
Priest: So more coverage on our side.
Priest: Of how—
Esquivel: I haven’t seen journalists from the national newspapers of the main media in the U.S. going to the border and talking to the people who live in the border. And that’s something that I really believe it needs to do in the American media now, with this president, Donald Trump.
Priest: In Ukraine, do you think American media coverage is more sensitive for the—or negative media coverage is more sensitive for the president, the prime minister, than Ukrainian coverage? I mean, do we matter anymore to those people in power in what kind of attention we can bring to them? Because it used to be that that was really something that the governments didn’t want; they didn’t want international coverage of their problems, because they all operate in Washington and they all usually need something from Washington.
Sopova: Yeah, I think it depends on whether the country considers itself like American ally or American enemy. So Ukraine considers itself like a small American ally. So any American coverage means tremendously. And often it’s been like anything that is published. It’s been translated by different media, in different ways, depending on what they want to hear. They just take some pieces that they want to choose, and then it’s been discussed. And it can directly influence the way the president behaves or things happen. So it has a huge, important influence. And unfortunately, often this like foreign Western coverage focuses more on some big political issues. While it would really help if there was some coverage of like small people who are suffering—
Sopova: —from the conflict or something.
Talev: Can I answer the “wave the magic wand” question?
Talev: Because you’re right. Under the Obama administration, Ben Rhodes, the deputy NSA would convene these background briefings with the foreign press working group. And it was tremendously valuable for the administration also in helping to explain their policies to the rest of the world. And I think we should be encouraging this administration more to understand the benefits of that.
If I could wave a magic wand, there’re three things I would do. I would ask—I would encourage all journalists to spend more time engaging with Americans across the country about what we do, and listening to them about what their issues are, what coverage they want. I think there’s a disconnect that we have a role in helping to fix. Two, I would encourage all Americans to see these debates about the First Amendment and government embracing dissent as a vital part of democracy. I would encourage people to see that as something that is patriotic and a protection for them, not just for us in a business. And three, I would really encourage the people, in any administration, who are closest to the president and who understand the impact that this has on the world, to be in the president’s ear talking about—whether they are the vice president, the U.N. ambassador, the defense secretary, the national security advisor. These are really vital issues that do matter for all of our safety and the ability of a free society to excel.
Priest: Well, on that note, we’re going to have to wrap. So I want to first make a callout to two organizations that are very important but aren’t here, which is Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and also the Voice of America. You know, it’s not known by a lot of people, but both of those organizations are sometimes the last—they employ some of the last reporters who are often in hiding in countries, and often take great risks and are in prison themselves, in many different places. And I think because, you know, the public here doesn’t really see those publications as much, we don’t know that there are these risks to them.
And I wanted to remind the audience here and online that if you’d like to watch video clips from this, you can go to WashingtonPostLive.com, and see some excerpts. So, thank you for all coming. [APPLAUSE] And thank you.