You Can Kill and Censor Journalists or You Can Have Democracy—You Can’t Have Both!
Liberal Democracies’ Abandonment of Free-Press Principles
The 11 May 2022 murder of the Palestinian-American citizen and Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), while wearing a bright blue vest marked “press,” is the latest illustration of the abandonment of free-press principles by supposed liberal democracies. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index warns that the globe is in a state of “information chaos,” with a record 28 countries meeting the RWB’s definition of “very bad” when it comes to press freedoms.
Such analysis helps contextualize the murder of Akleh, a courageous journalist who used the power of the press to illuminate the actions of the Israeli government toward Palestine. Her murder occurred just shy of the first anniversary of when Israeli pulverized the Associated Press Building in Gaza, and they have yet to provide a justification for that decision to the US Four. Years ago, it was revealed that Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist, was gruesomely murdered on 2 October 2018 by the Saudi Royal Family for his critical reporting of their regime. Rather than respond aggressively and assert its commitment to free-press principles, the US has largely relied on legislative virtue signalling and promises to investigate these matters, but no one was ever held accountable.
The lacklustre response is due in part to the American government’s waning support for free-press principles. The US press chided former President Donald Trump for popularizing the fake news epithet, but they have not used their reporting to pressure President Joe Biden to protect free-press principles. The press rightly noted that Trump excused Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of Khashoggi and that he attempted to assassinate Julian Assange of Wikileaks. However, they have been largely silent on Biden refusing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi’s murder or his support for the continued imprisonment of Assange. Assange is accused of helping to expose US war crimes—something numerous journalists have done. In fact, Barack Obama, who was known for waging an aggressive war on whistleblowers, chose not to pursue Assange any further because he was afraid of its negative effect on free-press principles.
The censorship of journalists occurs at the state level at well. Veteran journalist Abby Martin’s reporting led her to become a supporter of the boycott-divest-sanctions against Israel movements (BDS). That support led to the cancellation of Martin’s speech at a conference in Georgia. Georgia had a law that all speakers receiving public funds in excess of $1000 had to sign a pledge of opposition to BDS. In fact, 30 states have such a requirement. Martin refused to sign the pledge. Although Martin won a judgment against the public university for violating her expressive and due process rights, it came years after her talk and the conference were cancelled.
The suppression of journalism in the US is not solely a function of government, but private industry as well. Indeed, for over forty years, Project Censored has documented the ways in which corporate news media in the US suppress or censor stories that challenge the power of corporatism and the two major political parties. This was made crystal clear when private industry in 2022, when the Russo-Ukrainian War resulted in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saw Direct TV, Dish Network, and SlingTV remove Russia Today’s content from its services. This resulted in the network ceasing US operations in March 2022. As the name indicates, the network is funded by Russia, and as a result, lacked a substantive critique of Russia. However, it was one of the few places US audiences could access substantive critiques of their own country. Indeed, RT America featured thoughtful analysis from people such as Lee Camp, and veteran Pulitzer Prize journalists such as Chris Hedges. For Hedges, this was the second time he lost employment for speaking truth to power. He previously lost his position at the New York Times over his opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Censorship against journalists has become disturbingly common in digital spaces. Digital censorship discourses often focus on Trump, Elon Musk, or big tech's removal of conservative stories such as The New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden during the 2020 US Presidential Election. All of these are important stories and controversies, but they distract from the many ways that big tech has shadowbanned and demonetised leftist journalistic outlets such as Counterpunch, The Intercept, and Common Dreams. In late April 2022, offering no opportunity to appeal, PayPal suspended both Consortium News and MintPress News’s access to the funds in their accounts and prevented future payments to the news outlets. For over a decade, PayPal has been demonetizing press outlets that challenge dominant US narratives such as Wikileaks. Consortium News was founded in 1995 by award-winning journalist Robert Parry of Iran-Contra fame and MintPress is run by Palestinian-American, Mnar Adley, and features brave journalists such as Alan MacLeod. Both outlets regularly publish anti-war and counter-narrative journalism.
The normalization of press censorship runs counter to principles of liberal democracy, which necessitate a robust and free press that acts as a marketplace of ideas, sets the civic agenda, mobilizes the public, and holds the powerful accountable. It also necessitates that the public actively support protections for the press and aggressively resist those in power from undermining free press principles, especially when it comes to journalists who make us uncomfortable with their reporting. Regardless of one’s ideology, all citizens should be clear that democracy ceases to exist when legitimate journalists are labelled as fake news, or worse, murdered, maimed, and censored.