Every year in April, the Pulitzer Prizes honor the best reporting published by U.S. media outlets. Even though they remain an American tradition, the Pulitzers are widely perceived as some of the world’s most significant journalism awards.
In previous years, a common theme among winners was their focus on democracy and freedom of the press under attack abroad.
But in 2018, U.S. journalists unwillingly became the center of the story themselves, as Reporters Without Borders added the United States to its list of the most dangerous places after five employees with Annapolis’s Capital Gazette newspaper were shot dead in June.
The incident marked the spread of a threat that previously had mostly affected U.S. journalists traveling abroad. In October, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributing columnist, was brutally murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The CIA later concluded that the killing was probably ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
President Trump initially vowed “severe punishment” against the perpetrators and suggested that “there is a lot at stake, and maybe, especially so because this man was a reporter.”
But Mohammed has so far not faced U.S. sanctions. Weapons exports to the kingdom have continued, even as other countries have imposed tougher regulations as a result of Khashoggi’s murder.
The killing of Khashoggi was the most widely reported case of a murdered journalist in 2018, but he was far from the only one.
Journalists around the world faced repression; the number of reporters in detention rose in China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among other places. Reporters Without Borders also recorded a 15 percent annual increase in journalists being killed while doing their jobs. In all, at least 63 professional journalists died. Afghanistan, Syria and Mexico were cited as especially dangerous for reporters. The number surged to 80 once Reporters Without Borders included nonprofessional journalists and media workers in its statistics.
Besides Mexico, two other countries that are not at war also made it into the infamous top six: India and the United States.
Researchers have voiced concerns that Trump’s bashing of media outlets and journalists has resulted in a more hostile environment for media professionals. Studies from places such as Germany, where right-wing politicians and parties have deployed similar strategies, show that such rhetoric can trigger physical violence among supporters.
In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, which is separate from the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists, Reporters Without Borders echoed those concerns, writing that “the violent anti-press rhetoric from the White House has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions."
As the Pulitzers prove, U.S. press freedom can set international standards, both in a positive and in a negative way.
As U.S. journalists came under attack from the White House, autocrats and dictators who previously feared U.S. sanctions over cracking down on press freedom in their countries gained new confidence after the 2016 elections, according to researchers.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte began to lash out at “fake news,” just as Philippine authorities cracked down on independent reporting.
The drop in U.S. press freedom is not simply bad news for American journalists but also “has drastic consequences at the international level,” Reporters Without Borders concluded in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
“ 'Fake news’ is now a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes,” the organization warned.
As the Pulitzer Prizes are announced on Monday, the world will take note, as it does every year. But this year, foreign observers are also likely to keep an eye on Trump’s Twitter feed.
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