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Pakistani reporter’s chilling question reminds us of our freedom

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Gene Policinski
October 27, 2011
— What do you say to a journalist who asks your advice on how to avoid his own murder?

Some background before you respond: The question was real, and came during an international discussion about a free press and the First Amendment. It came from a soft-spoken, middle-aged man, a participant in a U.S. State Department-sponsored gathering in Washington, D.C., of some 160 journalists from 105 nations.


“I have heard you speaking today about freedom of the press and the power of writing the truth,” the Pakistani journalist said. In his rural area, he said, “I am free to write what I want, to write the truth … but some day if I write a truthful thing, they will kill me. And they will kill my family. As a journalist, what am I to do? What advice do you have to me?”


The question was a show-stopper. In seconds, there was silence in a room that had been filled with the murmur of translators, the rustle of paper and the clink of glassware.


For a journalist working in America, the question was almost beyond understanding. Our news media certainly have vocal critics. But with few exceptions, the direst threat to journalists here involves canceled subscriptions, lost advertising or angry phone calls.


Those exceptions have included threats of prison, as early as seven years after the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 provided for the prosecution of editors who criticized Congress or the president. Indeed, several editors were jailed for brief periods, until the acts were allowed to expire a few years later.


A journalist reporting for the Associated Press was killed in 1876 with Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. Many other war correspondents have died reporting in combat. And in 1976, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles died from injuries suffered when a bomb planted in his car exploded. Bolles was investigating fraudulent land deals involving top state political figures. But nobody went after Bolles’ family.


Not so in the world of international journalism. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to North Africa to Mexico, warlords, dictators, drug cartels and other criminal groups target journalists with violence, trumped-up lawsuits or bogus criminal charges, all aimed at controlling the news and intimidating opposition.


There’s no doubt that our free press can do a better job reporting the news than it does. Multiple surveys say a majority of Americans think “the media” are biased. Many see news media as subservient to liberal ideology or conservative business interests. Even the most ardent defenders of the news media cringe at the astounding amount of television time given to the latest update on Lindsay Lohan’s legal woes or the 24/7 coverage of a sexy murder case.


But the enduring legacy of a free press—220 years old on Dec. 15—and the legal bulwark of the First Amendment protect those who bring us the news, silly or serious, every day. And we’re free to read the news from a growing number of possible outlets, choosing the sources we deem credible.


But what advice to give that lone, endangered Pakistani reporter looking to another nation’s First Amendment for inspiration, if not protection? How about: “Survive. Take notes, write down what you see—and wait for the day when you can write without fear.”


For that journalist, and others facing similar threats, it may be a long wait. Thanks to the First Amendment, for Americans it’s the next time they pick up a paper, log on to a news site or turn on the TV.


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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