THE BLOG
05/02/2019 11:24 EDT | Updated 05/02/2019 11:36 EDT

With Crucial Elections Ahead, We Need To Protect Our Free Press

Around the world, journalists are being targeted by harassment and intimidation

It's been two weeks since Lyra McKee was gunned down in the streets of Derry in Northern Ireland, doing the work she loved and that we all needed her to do.

McKee was a journalist, and regarded by many as one of the best around. She'd only begun to tell the story of her country, which she loved, finding fresh and revealing ways to tell the story of The Troubles and its aftermath.

She wrote about teen suicides linked to the Troubles, and at the time of her death was researching unsolved killings during that time. Her letter to herself as a 14-year-old girl struggling with her sexuality was made into a short film.

A promising career cut short, and hers was not the only one.

As World Press Freedom Day approaches on Friday, it is worth remembering that there are dozens of journalists killed or injured on the job, harassed for doing their important work and even restricted by their governments from doing their job.

There were 95 journalists and media workers killed around the world in 2018, according to the International Federation of Journalists, either through targeted attacks or crossfire incidents. So far this year, there have been 14, including McKee.

Most died far away from the spotlight and received little of the attention McKee's killing did. There's Associated Press Libyan photographer Mohamed Ben Khalifa, who was shot covering militia clashes in Tripoli (much like McKee), and Honduran journalist and government critic Leonardo Gabriel Hernández, targeted and gunned down near his home, to name just two.

Of the more than 600 journalists killed in the last six years, nine in 10 of the killers have never been found. This level of impunity makes journalists easy targets — and for more than killings.

The theme for this year's World Press Freedom Day is "Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation." It's a perfect theme for these times.

"No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said.

AP Photo via CP/Mohamed Ben Khalifa
In this file photo from Feb. 21, 2015, a Libyan soldier wakes his comrade in Al Ajaylat, 120 km west of Tripoli, Libya. The work of photographer and video journalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa, who was killed in Libya on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, reflected Libya's post-2011 chaos of rival militias fighting for control as well as the humanitarian tragedy of waves of people fleeing North Africa, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Around the world, journalists are being targeted in many ways beyond killing, but in ways that are just as silencing and just as dangerous to free debate and democracy.

Just this week, Myanmar's top court rejected the final appeal of two journalists who were jailed last year after they reported truthfully on their government's repression of the Rohingya.

At virtually the same time the U.S.'s embassy in Myanmar was condemning the court's decision, U.S., President Donald Trump was lashing out against journalists in his own country demanding that the New York Times "get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness-they are truly the Enemy of the People!"

He was upset about columnist Paul Krugman coverage of the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

To have such a powerful person making threats against journalists opens the door for more to do the same.

Calling the press the "enemy of the people" that must "get down on their knees" before him is an obvious — and dangerous — attack on an institution that is protected by his own country's constitution.

"The phrase 'enemy of the people' is not just false, it's dangerous. It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information," New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger said in response.

He's right. To have such a powerful person making threats against journalists opens the door for more to do the same.

The threats come from other leaders to ordinary citizens who think it is OK to intimidate and threaten journalists for just doing their job — including a Trump supporter was seen at one of his rallies wearing a T-shirt reading "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required."

On top of that, social media has made harassing journalists all too easy, with female journalists bearing the brunt.

Closer to home, the new premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, is setting up a "war room" to counter any criticism of the oil industry in the media or by environmental groups.

More from HuffPost Canada:

For a democracy to thrive, the press must not only be free from harassment, but must also have the resources to do its job properly — which is why the announcement of support for local journalism the federal budget is welcome, the measures lack the urgency needed.

As we enter into the final months before Canada's federal election, already coming with warnings of foreign influence and fake news, the importance of a free and functioning press could not be more important.

Reporters do not have to die in the streets, as happened in Derry and Tripoli in recent weeks, for a free press to be threatened. It happens every day with politicians who demonize the media, by social media trolls who intimidate reporters doing their jobs and by the steady draining of resources journalists need.

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