The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Trump touted his disdain for the press, a record number of journalists were jailed around the world

An image of Jamal Khashoggi is projected onto the front of the Newseum in Washington on Oct. 1, 2019, the one-year anniversary of the suspected state-ordered assassination of the Post columnist and Saudi dissident. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Elana Beiser is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Four years ago, as Donald Trump was preparing to move to the White House, Ismail Alexandrani was awaiting trial in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison. Alexandrani was not surprised to be locked up, even though he’d been in Washington himself, as a visiting journalist at the Wilson Center, just months before his arrest in 2015. According to one of his friends, Alexandrani knew that his newspaper articles criticizing the Egyptian military might get him arrested when he went home.

Alexandrani was one of a record number of journalists imprisoned for their work around the time of Trump’s election. Fast forward to today: As President Trump prepares to leave the White House, Alexandrani is still in Tora prison. And the number of journalists in jail around the world has hit 274, a historical high.

President-elect Joe Biden must make reversal of this trend a priority of his foreign policy.

Under Trump, the United States abdicated its role as the global beacon of press freedom. Trump cozied up to dictators such as Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, giving them cover to keep journalists in jail. He gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a pass for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, at the hands of Saudi operatives.

Trump’s State Department also engaged in a tit-for-tat with China over journalist visas that got more than a dozen foreign reporters expelled from that country. His Customs and Border Protection harassed journalists at U.S. borders. His appointee tried to strip the editorial independence from Congress-funded broadcasters such as Voice of America, which have long filled the gap in nations where all other news is state-controlled.

Trump belittled and demonized journalists to the point that Americans lost all faith in the media, likely contributing to infections and deaths when covid-19 arrived. His rhetoric set the stage for an unprecedented 100 or more journalists to be arrested or criminally charged this year in the United States while covering protests, and hundreds more to be assaulted — the majority by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The global crisis in press freedom may seem like the least of the disasters that Biden will inherit, what with the surging pandemic, the faltering economy, a painfully divided citizenry and rising tensions with countries such as China and Iran.

Yet without the free flow of news and stronger trust in independent media, none of the other crises can be fully addressed. Americans’ health, physiological and economic, depends on understanding and accepting information on the risks of covid-19. Businesses and investors depend on news from rivals such as China (the world’s worst jailer of journalists, and which last week arrested a local Bloomberg News employee in Beijing).

Policymakers need clarity on socio-political developments in Russia and in Iran, not to mention burgeoning unrest in Belarus and armed conflict in Ethiopia — all countries where censorship, as measured by the number of imprisoned journalists, is on the rise. (On Saturday, Iran executed one of its jailed journalists by hanging, citing 17 mostly anti-state charges.)

These are all reasons why the Committee to Protect Journalists has published a proposal urging Biden to restore U.S. press freedom leadership. He has already shown that he will treat journalists with a measure of respect, but he must do much more. He must encourage local investigations into, and accountability for, the recent attacks on journalists covering protests in the United States. He must affirm the independence of government-funded media. He must support efforts to reinforce local news outlets and to counter the proliferation of misinformation. He must transcend the record of the Obama administration, under which information was over-classified and journalists were targeted for their sources.

To get a jump-start on foreign policy, Biden should appoint a special envoy for press freedom to take the lead on this issue while the State Department rebuilds capacity. The special envoy would attend trials of journalists, speak out wherever independent media is under threat, pursue justice in the murder of Khashoggi and work to free imprisoned journalists such as Ismail Alexandrani.

In 2018, a military court sentenced Alexandrani to 10 years in prison for publishing military secrets, joining a banned organization and publishing “false news” abroad. The court did not present any evidence, according to his lawyer. Authorities have conveniently failed to take the final procedural step of ratifying his sentence, rendering the journalist unable to appeal. This year, at least one Egyptian journalist died of covid-19 after falling ill in Tora prison.

Before he was jailed, Alexandrani investigated security cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula between the United States and Egypt, including alleged bombings of civilians. Egypt is the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid. With the U.S. budget deficit at a record high (another crisis), U.S. taxpayers literally cannot afford for journalists such as Alexandrani to be in jail.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: The pandemic is a hard enough story for journalists to cover. Leaders like Trump make it harder.

The Post’s View: Trump has launched an eleventh-hour assault on Voice of America

The Post’s View: This World Press Freedom Day, remember the journalists jailed or killed for doing their jobs

Alexandra Petri: Why is the media accurately reporting my coronavirus actions just to be mean?