As members of Congress, we swear an oath to defend the Constitution, a pledge that includes protecting the First Amendment and its guarantee that the freedom of the press not be infringed. The prominence of this guarantee reflects the framers’ understanding that a press that could hold power to account was key to the success of the young American democracy.
History has proved them prescient, and the United States’ model of protecting the press has served as a beacon for other free countries. It also reinforces our responsibility to stand up for press freedom in nations where the simple act of reporting the truth can lead to imprisonment, assault and even murder.
On May 3, we marked World Press Freedom Day, an occasion to consider the indispensable role journalists play in a democratic society and to call attention to the hundreds of journalists around the world who are in prison cells, or have been attacked, injured or killed, for the “crime” of reporting. The Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus was founded in 2006 to serve as a voice for the safety and rights of journalists around the world, to make clear that Congress stands with them and to hold the powerful to account.
Regrettably, recent years have been some of the most dangerous and deadly in memory for journalists. Far too many have been taken prisoner or lost their lives in attempts to report news from such places as Syria and Afghanistan. And in a world where authoritarianism is on the rise, journalists are often caught in the crosshairs of regimes intent on restricting access to information to better control their populace.
We see it in the brutal assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by agents of the Saudi government for his criticism of the crown prince and the kingdom.
We see it in Myanmar, where two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for their reporting on the genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya people.
We see it in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolas Maduro has employed violence, arrests and intimidation against independent media organizations.
We see it in Russia, where the Kremlin has mastered the art of spreading disinformation as a geopolitical weapon, while simultaneously implementing draconian laws to stifle dissent and free expression within its borders.
Violence and intimidation of journalists has also struck close to home. In June, five staff members of the Capital Gazette were gunned down in their Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom. In its latest report on press freedom around the world, the group Reporters Without Borders downgraded the United States to a “problematic” country. Just as we decry violence against journalists in other countries, we must speak out against attempts to stifle and intimidate the free press within our borders.
Threats to independent journalism are the canary in the coal mine — they signal a toxic environment for democracy writ large. As the leader of the free world, the United States has a duty to speak out on behalf of journalists who risk their lives to report the news. The truth must not, and cannot, be silenced by a censor, a prison cell or a bullet.
In what would be his final column for The Post, Khashoggi made an impassioned plea for a reawakening of democracy and free expression in the Arab world. His words are applicable the world over, and we believe his death must serve as a call to arms for freedom-loving people.
Those who seek absolute power, who seek to enrich themselves through corruption, and who use fear and violence as means to these ends fear a free press – and well they should. On World Press Freedom Day, we commit to redoubling our advocacy for journalists who do their jobs and promote democracy. They will always have a friend in America.
U.S. Reps. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and Adam B. Schiff, D-California, are co-chairmen of the Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus. This column was written for The Washington Post.