World Press Freedom Day 2022: Journalism Matters More than Ever

Map of the World’s Freedom of Press Index.

“Press freedom is defined as the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety.” Reporters Without Borders.

I began this article a week ago when much to my shock a well-placed, respected, expert in his field, after speaking with me about a particular environmental condition, called me several hours later and informed me that he had been told he could not speak to the press unless two people within his arena approved it – not experts in the field, by the way. To say that I was taken aback is an understatement. This is a person I have had a long, long trusted relationship with for nearly 20 years. This person never once balked at speaking on the record with me or anyone else. This was not a controversial subject. What he had to say was not controversial. That is unless you consider climate change controversial. (I suggest the International Panel on Climate Change has put an end to any conspiracy theories about it). The short version is, he was being muzzled by a non-governmental agency that seems bent on controlling its message. Innocuous enough, one might think.

Life and weather conditions changed causing me to put the piece on hold until today when I attended a live streamed discussion on the Washington Post with two Russian journalists and a United States Senator that had serendipitously shown up on my radar Monday.

The discussion began with a report  that had been issued by Reporters Without Borders which ranked 180 countries on the freedom of their press. The United States ranked 43 just behind Berkina Faso at 42 and ahead of South Korea at 44. North Korea was last in the 180 slot, but a search on the list also ranked Russia at 180.

The two Russian journalists Tikhon Dzyadko and Ekaterina Kotrikadze who had fled their country with their two children on March 4 two days ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spoke candidly and courageously about the country they love and left behind.

While Russia under Putin has not exactly been considered high on press freedom, the couple who work for TV Rain, an independent Russian television channel founded in 2010, were allowed to report without direct threat or censorship, they said. Until August 2021 when TV Rain was shut down. They said most of the reporters and producers left the country at that point.

Though a Google search shows TV Rain closed Aug. 5, both Dzyadko and Kotrikadze said they are still reporting and able to get through to their countrymen on some of the social media channels, including YouTube, that Russia has not been able to completely darken.

As the entire world focuses on the results of authoritarianism turned dictatorship emanating from Moscow while relating it to what Trump did to the United States under the false accusation of fake news, it is important to see how far less dramatic slights can nonetheless undermine the community’s Constitutional right to know. It also feeds cynicism which leads to passivity and a dismal voter turnout by young people.

There is a bigger problem, however. In the discussion Tuesday when asked by the moderator how the United States might have sunk to number 43 on the freedom index, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota answered immediately. “We don’t have enough local journals,” adding that in the last few years “we’ve lost 2200 community papers.” Meanwhile, monopolistic social media companies that have sucked up the advertising dollars that those papers relied on has made something around $2 trillion. “Something really smells here, “ Klobuchar said.

There are many dramatic ways that truth is being challenged or even murdered, as evidenced by Putin’s gagging of all journalism in Russia right through to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and many other journalists, that are frightening in their scope and intention. It’s what Trump did effectively, without resorting to that level of violence, with his fake news speak. The intention is to allow the corporations, oligarchs and billionaires to take over our world while the rest of us choke on their fumes. Journalism and a band of courageous, principled, and underpaid, journalists is the army that can wage the battles over and over again that seek to cover up truth which I mentioned is borne by facts, attribution and trust.

What we do in the territory to control the press is far less dramatic. It’s a bit uncomfortable to even compare it to Russia and Saudi Arabia and many other places where journalists have been imprisoned or killed this year and in years past. But the journalists that were interviewed by the Washington Post made it clear they were allowed to do their television station until last August. When the boom is lowered, it comes down fast.

So, back to our home grown version of disregard for the media. Requests for public documents, phone calls to public information officers, on the record quotes, go ignored unanswered and blocked.

It was shocking to me years ago when I once called the FBI and left a message and within 15 minutes someone had called me back and answered my questions. Shocking. I had become so accustomed to being “ghosted,” as the millennials say, by a large portion of the territory’s agencies and institutions that it was enlightening to see, at least back then, how things were done elsewhere.

Here’s the good news. While other communities have watched their local newspapers dry up and blow away, we have three newspapers of general circulation in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And one of them at least has made a point over the years as part of the responsibility of being the first and only Internet only newspaper in the Virgin Islands of reporting the good news too.

As confounding as it may seem given the front pages of most major newspapers in the United States and across the globe, the fact is that the world has never been less violent. Keeping people frightened, as Putin has done by threatening nuclear war and even getting his cronies in the fake news business to show videos of what it would look like for one of their nuclear missiles to decimate Great Britain and Ireland, supposedly sells newspapers – and TV advertising..

Over the years when revenue was hard to come by and reporters went without pay for months sometimes, the Source always resisted the temptation to put up a pay wall. Thank God our community has seen the value in our trusted reporting and has supported us with advertising and donations for more than 20 years. It is not my intention to make this piece about the Source exclusively, but one of the ways of keeping the media free and healthy over the years suggested by Klobuchar was one we considered way back. Make the Source a nonprofit. My answer was it already was. Also, raising money through grants and other fundraising drives didn’t seem any easier to me than raising funds through advertising sales which I at least had experience with. The other option that was suggested by numerous pundits as mainstream and local newspapers were dropping like flies was to follow the example of the BBC which is government owned and supported.

Klobuchar, to her credit has introduced several bills that would tag both government funds and the monopolies’ treasure chests to support legitimate journalism.

And to their credit, Kotrikadze and Dzyadko were emphatic they did not want to stop being journalists despite the risks, despite the uncertainty, despite the lack of regular or reasonable compensation.

“Who will fight for democracy,” Kotrikadze said, as her toddler could be heard giggling in the background.