Journalists Everywhere Should Be Able to Do Their Jobs Without Fear

By Kevin M. Goldberg

In 1993, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed May 3 to be “World Press Freedom Day.” In addition to official U.N. events, various smaller conferences and celebrations occur around the world, such as a symposium convened by the Gambia Press Union at which I spoke in 2012. I mention that event – where my remarks focused on repeal of the country’s seditious libel law – because it was extremely well-attended, with journalists and citizens traveling from throughout the (rather small) nation to Banjul to be there in person.  Press coverage of the event was extensive, with my hour-long speech published in full in at least one publication.

kevin-goldbergMeanwhile, World Press Freedom Day is still relatively unknown here in the United States. That has to change, as press freedom is coming under assault even here which, in turn, further threatens the state of free speech around the world. Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, when asked whether President Trump would pursue a constitutional amendment to change libel laws in the United States, answered, “I think it’s something that we’ve looked at.” Priebus qualified his statement with “[h]ow that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.”

I’m even more skeptical and will say outright that this will never happen.

Still, to hear a top White House official make such a statement is chilling — continuing on the heels of a campaign that expressed disdain for journalists in a calculated way that actually resulted in harassment and physical abuse of journalists like we rarely, if ever, have seen domestically. It directly contradicts the United Nations’ stated goal in creating World Press Freedom Day, which was to offer a day that “which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

We must fully embrace World Press Freedom Day in 2017.  Not just because these attacks on the press and the First Amendment are distinctly un-American and contrary to our democratic principles. It is because any perceived weakness to free speech and a free press in the United States is instantly seized upon by foreign leaders seeking to further consolidate their power. I fear a reversal of the worldwide trend that has seen the repeal by several countries of laws containing criminal penalties for defamation of – or even truthful but insulting statements about – government officials. These laws, as I said on World Press Freedom Day in 2012, “have NO place in a democratic society, as they represent perhaps the single greatest threat to free speech in a democracy.”

It may already have started, as The New York Times reported in February that a government spokesman in Cambodia warned that “foreign news groups, including the United States-financed Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, should ‘reconsider’ how they broadcast — or risk a government response if their reports are deemed to spread disinformation or threaten peace and stability.”

The boldness to go after the foreign press does not bode well for the domestic press that are more likely to be pressured, harassed, arrested, assaulted, and even murdered for doing their jobs. International journalists are regular participants in National Press Foundation programs and viewers of our online content. We are proud to be able to provide training to make good journalists better in the United States and around the world.  We can only do that if everyone, everywhere, has the ability to do their jobs without fear. That is why we ask you to support the National Press Foundation and promote World Press Freedom Day.

Kevin M. Goldberg, an attorney at Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth LLC, is chairman of the National Press Foundation.