Sen. Leahy addresses threats to journalists, defends press


Editor’s note: The following is the text of an address Sen. Patrick Leahy gave on the Senate floor on Nov. 29.

Mr. President, in the 44 years I have served in the United States Senate I have never been more concerned about the state of press freedom around the world – including, I deeply regret to say, in our own country.

The pre-meditated murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi authorities, and their transparent attempt to cover it up, have shocked the consciences of people everywhere.  Yesterday, by voting to discharge Senate Joint Resolution 54, the Senate showed that the Saudi royal family needs to hold accountable all those responsible for that horrific crime if it wants to salvage relations with the United States.

Just a few days after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the body of Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova was discovered, and preliminary investigations suggest she was raped, beaten, and strangled. She had spent the past year reporting on corruption.

At least 43 journalists have been killed for their work so far in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.  Fifteen other journalists have also been killed, although their deaths have not – at least not yet – been officially linked to their work.

According to data compiled by Freedom House, the muzzling of journalists and independent news media is at its worst point in 13 years. Similarly, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of reporters jailed for their work is at a level not seen since the 1990s.  Strongmen around the world are cracking down with impunity. Perhaps we should not be surprised.

At home, President Trump regularly demonizes the news media as the “enemy of the people,” hoping that his acidic outbursts and threats will dissuade journalists from accurately reporting on his administration.

With the eyes of the world upon him, he makes a mockery of the entire notion of an independent press, branding all who challenge him as liars or worse, while holding hands with those willing to sing his praises. He even went so far as to rescind the credentials of one reporter who persisted in asking questions the president didn’t like – something I don’t recall ever witnessing before.

A few days ago he publicly denigrated the decorated, retired U.S. admiral who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and who had criticized the president’s attacks against the press as a grave threat to our democracy, which it is.

As Americans who cherish the First Amendment, and who rely on a free press for sustaining our democratic form of government, we should be appalled. The words of a president matter. They always have. This president’s rhetoric gives comfort to autocrats the world over who are emboldened to clamp down on dissent, confident that they have a powerful defender in the White House.

We have seen despots quote our president about this. We have seen countries pass laws outlawing so-called “fake news,” which their leaders use to justify dismissing and castigating reporting with which they disagree, and to persecute political opponents.

We should fear the day when a free press is seen as unimportant, or a luxury – as something no longer synonymous with this country and our values. We must, all of us, recommit ourselves to defending press freedom and elevating and celebrating our free press as one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

In this challenging time for press freedom around the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists honored four exceptional journalists at the 2018 International Press Freedom Awards in New York City.  I want to briefly share the accomplishments of each of these talented and courageous individuals.

Amal Khalifa Idris Habbani is the co-founder of the Sudanese Journalists Network, which has covered protests and official wrongdoing in Sudan, whose leader President al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Because of her reporting she has been harassed, detained, and physically abused by Sudanese authorities. Still, she continues to do her job at great personal peril.

Anastasiya Stanko is an independent broadcast journalist who was taken hostage by an armed group while reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since her release, she has continued to risk her safety by reporting on the war and on other human rights violations by Ukraine’s Security Service in conflict-torn areas.

Luz Mely Reyes is an investigative reporter who founded an independent news website to bring attention to the political situation in her country of Venezuela. In 2017, while covering protests against President Nicolas Maduro, members of her team were attacked and threatened.  She continued her work unabated and has since emerged as one of Venezuela’s most recognizable champions for independent journalism.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, one of Vietnam’s most prominent independent bloggers, has devoted her life to calling attention to human rights violations in Vietnam. In October 2016, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “propagandizing against the state.” After her health began to deteriorate, she was released from prison but only on condition of exile.

We often speak out about the abuses of repressive governments around the world. We must also speak out against the increasing attempts to demean and intimidate the press here at home. The lives of these four brave individuals should remind us of what is at stake, of the slippery slope we are on, and to stand up for what is right even when our president will not.

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