Message from Keith
Let’s start this month with a quiz. Just two questions.
In what country did the government this month just bring tax evasion charges against a hard-hitting independent news site and its editor, in a thinly veiled attempt to try to silence critical coverage of the president?
And in what country did the president recently have the press credentials revoked for a journalist who asked him tough questions at a press conference, and then had his aides distribute an amateurishly doctored video trying to justify the move?
The answer to the first question is the Philippines, where the government of Rodrigo Duterte recently accused the Rappler news site, and its CEO Maria Ressa—a good friend of the JMSC—of failing to pay tax on about US$3 million in unreported gains from 2015. Ressa has rightly called this a blatant attempt at intimidation.
The answer to the second question is the U.S., where the White House revoked the press credentials of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, who has been known for his tough but accurate coverage of President Donald Trump. The network is now suing the White House to have Acosta’s credentials reinstated, and have enlisted top Republican lawyer Ted Olson, a former solicitor general in the last Bush administration.
You might be forgiven if you had the two answers reversed.
The U.S. and the Philippines are both now run by authoritarian presidents who publicly berate reporters in personal terms and bristle at any press coverage not fawning enough. Duterte and Trump have both threatened to use the instruments of government to harass media organisations whose coverage they dislike. Both countries have dropped in the annual World Press Freedom Index; the Philippines is down six places and the U.S. under Trump has dropped two spots.
What is disheartening is that the U.S. and the Philippines are also both democracies. Harassing and intimidating reporters is what we have come to expect from nondemocratic and unelected authoritarian regimes. But leaders elected in democratic systems are supposed to understand the essential role the press serves, namely holding governments accountable, rooting out corruption, giving voice to people’s concerns, and providing citizens the uncensored information they need to make informed decisions.
Democracy’s founders understood the central role of the press, placing press freedom in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson famously said he would choose newspapers with no government over a government devoid of newspapers. Another Jefferson quote, a favourite of mine, is worth remembering; “The only security of all is in a free press.”
That is wisdom we should all remember when we see journalists being intimidated, threatened, slapped with trumped up legal charges, or having their press credentials revoked—or being denied a visa to enter Hong Kong.
Director of the JMSC