Actress Meryl Streep devoted a large section of her acceptance speech at last night’s Golden Globes to draw attention to diminishing press freedom in the United States. She urged her Hollywood audience and millions of television viewers to support the journalist rights group the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our Constitution,” said Streep. “So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
Streep named the Committee to Protect Journalists within the context of the U.S., but its work is vital around the world.
The organization tracks attacks on journalists and restrictions on the media by governments or other groups. In 2016 a record 259 journalists were imprisoned. At least 48 were killed doing their jobs.
Just since the start of the New Year, the committee has reported numerous attacks on the press. Gambia is in the midst of a political crisis. President Yahya Jammeh refuses to step down from office after losing to challenger Adama Barrow in the election late last year. Authorities in Gambia closed down three independent radio stations on Jan. 1 and one more today, preventing the spread of non-government-approved information.
In Ethiopia, two journalists were sentenced to prison for terrorism. Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law has been used to indefinitely jail and prosecute people opposing the government. Journalists and bloggers who publish stories critical of the Ethiopian government are arrested under that law. In recent years, “terrorism” is a favored charge used by autocratic governments seeking to legally limit press freedom. At least 16 Ethiopian journalists are in jail, most because of the terrorism law.
The Committee to Protect Journalists turned its attention towards the U.S. during the recent presidential election. Board Chairwoman Sandra Mims Rowe issued a statement in September on behalf of the organization warning of the threat posed by Donald Trump. She said the board passed a resolution declaring Trump “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.” As Streep did in her speech, Rowe pointed to Trump’s mocking of a disabled New York Times journalist.
Other concerns included the denial of press credentials to news outlets including The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and The Des Moines Register. Trump also made the pledge during his campaign to “open up libel laws.” Rowe said that the statement should not be taken as campaign rhetoric, and that the organization is taking everything the president-elect says seriously.
“A Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States, but the consequences for the rights of journalists around the world could be far more serious,” said Rowe, in the statement. “Any failure of the United States to uphold its own standards emboldens dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries. This appears to be of no concern to Trump, who indicated that he has no inclination to challenge governments on press freedom and the treatment of journalists.”
There were two reasons for turning the focus to the U.S. press freedom. The first is to ensure that the constitutional freedom remains strong. The second reason is to maintain the important standard set by the U.S. and other democratic countries, which help hold other world leaders accountable. The Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the loss of a free press in the U.S. would embolden leaders elsewhere to crack down.
“We would also like to remind incoming officials of the danger that harassment of the press in the United States will be used as a pretext by repressive leaders around the world to persecute their critics, ” said Executive Director Joel Simon in a letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence requesting a meeting with the presidential transition team to discuss press freedom. “[The Committee to Protect Journalists] is committed to documenting serious violations of freedom of the press. Traditionally, such violations have been few and far between in the United States, and we want to work with the new administration to ensure that remains so.”