The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. just became a dangerous place to be a journalist

18-year-old Sofia Biondi, likely the last person Wendi Winters interviewed, recounted her time with the journalist just before Winters was shot and killed. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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Thursday, five employees of a newspaper — four of them journalists — were hunted down in their newsroom and murdered for doing their jobs.

This crime happened, not in a foreign country, but in nearby Annapolis. Yet there are some striking similarities between the killings at the Capital Gazette and the sad and hazardous climate for journalists around the world.

I write often on the dangers faced by the press internationally. I have a special perspective on the subject because my imprisonment while working as a correspondent in Iran has (supposedly) bestowed me with a kind of legitimacy to talk about the risks we take when doing this work.

Mostly I’ve covered attacks on the media taking place on the other side of the world, usually in countries where the flow of information is restricted, or conditions are such that a sense of desperation or political or tribal affiliation can compel individuals to take heinous action.

Earlier this year I reported on three journalists murdered in a single week in India — the world’s biggest democracy — by people who didn’t like how they had been covered in the news. All three of the dead were run over by motor vehicles.

I also wrote on the murders of two journalists in the European Union, probably at the hands of organized crime syndicates.

For me these stories were a kind of wake-up call: These things aren’t supposed to happen in free societies. Whether or not it was intended, the message of the killings was crystal clear: Their assailants considered those journalists to be less than human.

Writing about a deadly attack that happened less than 30 miles away, in an idyllic town that I recently visited with relatives from overseas, is a new experience for me. And I have to say that I don’t relish the task.

There is one notable difference: Here in the United States, potential attackers have much greater access to guns than in just about any other country.

Even so, journalists at local American newspapers such as the Capital Gazette still have some important things in common with those who work in countries that aren’t free or particularly secure.

Like journalists in places such as Iran, Ethiopia and Myanmar, local reporters in the United States are committed to telling the stories of their own communities — because they know if they don’t do it, no one will. There is little glamour to the job, no big reward. It’s a public service in the sincerest sense. Until Thursday, the only difference was that those American reporters could expect to go home at the end of the workday. That’s because we expect our societies to function on the basis of transparency and the rule of law. Increasingly, though, that’s breaking down.

President Trump tried to say the right thing on Friday: “Journalists, like all Americans, should be free of the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs,” he declared. But that’s disingenuous given how often he has denounced reporters, insulted them and incited his rally crowds against them.

He didn’t create the problem of hostility to journalists, but he exploits and exacerbates it. That’s true, too, of the leaders in other countries who routinely call reporters enemies of the state, terrorists and national security threats. And we must be vigilant in standing up to these empty accusations.

Those who are committed to sharing important truths with the public at large — a process that’s vital to the health of our societies — should never have to contend with blanket attacks on their profession or their intentions, and definitely not the threat of violence.

Journalists get harassed. We get slandered. That’s not new. Sometimes we talk about it, but usually we don’t. These are among the occupational hazards that we accept, because — for whatever reason — we’ve decided it’s worth it.

It’s like being a teacher or a nurse. You get paid an honest wage to do work that you believe matters. We’re no threat to society. We’re an essential part of its fabric.

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