May 3 marked the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, first declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. A free press, says the U.N., “is a prerequisite and a driver to the enjoyment of all other human rights.”
This anniversary comes amid a shocking increase in threats to journalists around the world. Jennifer Dunham of the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 67 media workers were killed in 2022 — an almost 50-percent increase from the year before. More than half of those deaths occurred in three countries: Ukraine (15), Mexico (13), and Haiti (7). In Ukraine, most were related to newsgathering near the frontlines of the Russian invasion. In the other countries, however, many deaths were targeted murders in reprisal for reporting on corruption.
We are now seeing how authoritarian governments silence reporters by imprisoning them on false charges — as Russia has done to Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal — and aggressively use emerging technologies to censor the truth and spread disinformation.
When I was a young reporter, it seemed that democracy was on the rise and in America, at least, journalists were safe from this kind of repression and terror. We are lucky to live in a country with a commitment to freedom of the press. Journalism is the only profession that is singled out in the U.S. Constitution with a guarantee of protection from government control: the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” For more than 200 years, U.S. courts have consistently upheld the fundamental importance of independent newspapers and their right to criticize public figures.
But there is more to worry about now. Since the last president called the press “the enemy of the people,” threats against reporters, both legal and physical, have increased.
The biggest threat to a free press here is not government suppression, but unscrupulous actors in underregulated corners of the private sector. More than 2,500 local newspapers have closed in the last two decades, and many more have been stripped of their staff, leaving them as virtual ghosts of their former selves.
The corporations that have eviscerated thousands of newspapers want you to believe that the internet destroyed journalism’s “business model.” It’s not true. The average profit margin of U.S. newspapers is currently 12 percent. That’s not bad for a small locally owned business. But it’s not enough to satisfy distant corporate managers. Brendan Ballou, writing in the Atlantic, explains how private equity owners, manipulating a broken U.S. legal system, make money by bankrupting their own companies.
Here at the Independent, we are grateful for the support of our readers. One hundred forty of you, so far, have responded to the invitation to invest in the Indie’s Direct Public Offering. And we’re spreading the word of how it works to other towns, because we believe that the more newspapers there are, the better. Freedom of the press, after all, means nothing if there isn’t one.