Senate Floor Address Of Sen. Patrick Leahy, On Threats To Journalists, And Defending Press Freedom

In the 44 years I have served in the Senate, I have never been so concerned about the state of press freedom around the world, including, I deeply regret to say, in our own country.

I was brought up in a family that owned a weekly newspaper and owned a printing business. The First Amendment was the most important part of our Constitution because it promised the freedom of speech and it promised the diversity of religion, and that Amendment was the foundation of our democracy.

Yet the premeditated murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi authorities and then their ridiculous, transparent attempt to cover it up have shocked the consciences of people everywhere. Yesterday, by voting to discharge S.J. Res. 54, the Senate demonstrated that the Saudi royal family needs to hold accountable all those who are responsible for that horrific crime if it wants to salvage relations with the United States.

Look at what happens if we don’t speak out in defense of a free press. Just a few days after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the body of Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova was discovered. The investigation suggests that she was raped, beaten, and strangled. I think the motive is undeniable. She had spent the previous year reporting on corruption.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, so far, in 2018, at least 43 journalists have been killed for their work while 15 other journalists have also been killed, although their deaths have not yet, at least, been officially linked to their work. According to data compiled by Freedom House, the muzzling of journalists and independent news media is at its worst point in over a decade. Similarly, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of reporters who have been jailed for their work—who have been jailed for being reporters doing their job—is at a level that has not been seen since the 1990s. Strongmen around the world are cracking down with impunity. Frankly, this son of a printer, this son of a newspaper owner, is not surprised.

At home, President Trump regularly demonizes the news media. He calls the news media the enemy of the people and hopes that his acidic outbursts and threats will dissuade journalists from accurately reporting on his administration. With the eyes of the world upon him, he makes a mockery of the entire notion of an independent press. It is something that has been guaranteed in our Constitution since the beginning of our country, yet the President makes a mockery of it.

He brands anybody who challenges him as either a liar or worse, while he holds hands with those who are willing to sing his praises. He even went so far as to rescind the credentials of one reporter who persisted in asking questions the President didn’t like. I have been here with eight different Presidents, and I have never seen that done before, not even with Watergate.

A few days ago, he publicly denigrated the decorated, retired U.S. admiral who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and who had dared to criticize the President’s attacks against the press as being a grave threat to our democracy, which it is. So this President who avoided the draft five times demeans the Admiral who was in charge of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

As Americans who cherish the First Amendment and who rely on a free press for sustaining our democratic form of government, we should be appalled. The words of a President matter. They always have. Yet this President’s rhetoric gives comfort to autocrats the world over who are emboldened to clamp down on dissent, as they are confident they have a powerful defender in the United States as they censor and jail journalists.

We have seen despots quote our President. Can you imagine? We Americans see autocrats in other countries quote our President about this. We see them pass laws outlawing so-called fake news, which their leaders use to justify dismissing and castigating reporting with whom they disagree in order to persecute their political opponents.

We should fear the day when a free press is seen as unimportant or as a luxury—as something no longer synonymous with our country and its values. We must always recommit ourselves to defending press freedom and to elevating and celebrating a free press as one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

Americans should not be silenced just because our President, for the first time in history, demeans and tries to intimidate the press. We must stand up, as the Founders of this country and as every leader in this country up to now has done, and defend a free press. In this challenging time for press freedom around the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists honored four exceptional journalists at the 2018 International Press Freedom Awards in New York City.

One is Amal Khalifa, who is the cofounder of the Sudanese Journalists Network, which has covered protests of official wrongdoing in Sudan, whose leader, President al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Because of her reporting, she has been harassed, detained, and physically abused by Sudanese authorities, but she still does her job at great personal peril.

Anastasiya Stanko is an independent broadcast journalist who was taken hostage by an armed group while she reported on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since her release, she has continued to risk her safety and her life by reporting on the war and on other human rights violations in conflict-torn areas by Ukraine’s Security Service.

Luz Mely Reyes is an investigative reporter who founded an independent news website to bring attention to the political situation in her country of Venezuela. In 2017, while she covered protests against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, members of her team were attacked and threatened, but she courageously continued her work. She has since emerged as one of Venezuela’s most recognized champions of independent journalism.

Lastly, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, one of Vietnam’s most prominent independent bloggers, has devoted her life to calling attention to human rights violations in Vietnam. In October 2016, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of propagandizing against the state. After her health began to deteriorate she was released from prison, but only on the condition of exile.

We often speak about the abuses of repressive governments around the world. We must also speak out against the increasing attempts to demean and intimidate the press here at home. The President may continue to do that as the leaders of some other countries do, but we should not stand for it.

Our democracy depends on a free press. The lives of these four brave individuals remind us of what is at stake. We must stand up for what is right even when our President does not.

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David Carle: 202-224-3693