By YOUSUF ALI, Opinions Editor
“May you live in interesting times”. This an apocryphal Chinese saying generally understood as a curse. One thing is for sure- we live in extremely interesting times, in which so much which was taken for granted only a year ago has been thrown into uncertainty. Before, it was assumed that people in America would be safe from the types of human rights violations that occur so frequently in other countries. Now, even that has been called into question. In order to prevent such human rights violations, there must be a sustained, consistent opposition to any proposals that could compromise human rights. For this to take place, it is essential that people exercise their freedom of expression. One of the key aspects of exercising freedom of expression is strong press that is willing to criticize government when it threatens people’s rights and freedoms.
Throughout his campaigns, Donald Trump has established himself as an enemy of the press through attacks against individual reporters such as Jorgé Ramos and large media establishments such as the New York Times. If he had instead spent time trying to extinguish the fires of hate and division that his campaign has ignited, instead of attacking the press, this country would be a much safer place for all of its people. He has even talked about making it easier for politicians to sue journalists for writing articles with false information about themselves. While these promises seem outlandish, it is essential to understand that attacking the freedom of press is one of the hallmarks of authoritarian leaders all around the world. This restriction of the press has made journalism an extremely dangerous job in many foreign countries.
The fundamental task of a journalist is to tell people what is truthfully going on, and it is for that reason that true journalists are often targeted by political leaders. When that job involves bringing inconvenient truths of those in power to light, they become the most despised. For that reason, journalists are a regular target of human rights abuses by oppressive governments who want to control public discourse. Every year, Reporters Without Borders releases an index ranking countries on their level of freedom. As expected the world’s worst human rights violators consistently rank the lowest in terms of freedom of the press, including Syria, North Korea and China. In countries like these, the only journalism permitted is that which reinforces the narrative of government officials while attempting to discredit any public dissent. For journalists in these countries who write to exhibit the truth, the consequences can be severe.
To understand just how much danger journalists put themselves in, we should examine the case of Mahmoud Abu Zeid. Better known as “Shawkan”, Shawkan is an Egyptian photojournalist who published pictures of the infamous Rab’a massacre, in which 1,000 protesters were killed and thousands more were injured. Since 2013, he has been imprisoned in Egypt, repeatedly tortured, potentially facing the death penalty for spreading information that the Egyptian government does not like. Struggling with hepatitis C, the Egyptian government continues to deny him the care he desperately needs. Due to the particularly desperate nature of his condition, the global human rights organization Amnesty International has chosen him for their annual Write For Rights campaign. If there is enough pressure on the Egyptian government, he may have a real chance at freedom. That said, it is important to recognize that Shawkan’s experiences are not unique and could even happen in this country if the press is continuously attacked.
Freedom of expression plays a critical role in holding governments accountable, and journalists play a critical role in protecting freedom of expression. After the results of the presidential election, there are serious doubts being raised about how free the United States press will be. Some people may self-censor out of fear of the very real possibility of having to face the wrath of the White House; however, in order to protect all our rights and freedoms, journalists must be more vocal, not less. If they automatically tone down or limit their coverage, they are conceding defeat before the fight has even begun. This would make it far easier for the United States to become like countries like China or Egypt in their attacks on critical journalists. If the president-elect truly wishes for reporters to be prosecuted for what they write about him, then they should send a clear message that they will not be intimidated. Giving in to fear will only guarantee that this country becomes like so many others in which the government faces no serious opposition to its policies. The few voices of conscience would be imprisoned like Shawkan and so many others. When these voices are more numerous, they will become much more difficult to be silenced..