OPINION: We have to protect the First Amendment and its defenders

Flyer News writer discusses how recent administrations portray journalists and the role of the First Amendment, photo courtesy of Flickr.

Lucinda Judd
Contributing Writer

The Freedom of the Press provided by the First Amendment is dying and so are the journalists that defend it.

Journalists of certain fields are accustomed to warfare, personal attacks and even death. When I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C. in 2018, I noticed a memorial: a wall of pictures of journalists that lost their lives while doing their jobs.

The most harrowing aspect of the wall was not only the number of pictures, but the empty space above the memorial. Blank picture frames were left empty in anticipation of the future fallen journalists.

Although the Newseum is now closed because of a lack of funding, their website has a memorial page which includes 2,344 images and biographies of those journalists around the world that have died on the job.

Death is not the only traumatic event that can happen to journalists.

Attacks on reporters and journalists typically happen in war zones or areas of political unrest, like the notable assault of Lara Logan in 2015.

Logan was separated from her camercrew and bodyguards in Egypt and suffered multiple sexual assaults from a crowd celebrating the stepping down of the Egyptian president.

These attacks on the press have now moved much closer to home.

The First Amendment protects the press from Congress creating laws that limit freedom of the press, among other things. Like most amendments in the Constitution, this freedom tends to be respected by other political actors, in the legislative branch or not. 

For example, the First Amendment also states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and despite not being in the Legislative Branch, police cannot detain a Muslim praying in public or anyone exercising religion.

So why do we allow the press to face persecution and assault? Should journalists not also be granted the respect and human decency that comes with the amendment and livelihood in a democratic republic?

Over the four years of former-President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. saw a decrease in protection of journalists. The constant rhetoric and tweets of “fake news,” and casting the press as an “enemy of the American people” caused the bias against mass media to grow. This bias and anger caused the country to lash out at journalists defending the public’s right to information and expression.

This is obviously not the only factor, but it signaled to the public that journalists are not to be respected and will not be protected by the former administration.

This culminated in the increase of attacks on journalists. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker was launched in August 2017, and at the end of the year had logged 34 arrests, 44 physical attacks and 15 instances of equipment being seized or destroyed.

An alarming increase has been seen since then, the current page of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker counts 393 journalists assaulted, 100 journalists with equipment damaged, 130 arrests/detainments and 20 journalists/news organizations were subpoenaed in 2020.

This increase signals an alarming disregard for the First Amendment and lack of consideration for journalists as actual people. 

Trump’s rhetoric was not wholly responsible for this increase, but it does indicate to those within the U.S. that our government will not stand up for the freedom of the press.

However, President Joe Biden has continued this pattern in a more subtle, but arguably, more dangerous way by telling the world that the U.S. will not protect their journalists from foreign attacks.

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist for The Washington Post. He was a vocal dissenter to the actions of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) which resulted in Khashoggi’s assasination in 2018. His remains have still not been found as his murderers dismembered his body. 

The Department of National Intelligence in the U.S. has since conducted an investigation and declassified a report Feb.  25, 2021, listing those involved in the assassination of Khashoggi.

This report also confirmed MBS’s involvement in giving the order as some of those involved include members of the Royal Guard’s Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) who only take orders from MBS.

Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones deserve accountability,” Biden’s campaign website said. “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” 

Despite this promise, the Biden administration has not placed sanctions, or any other consequence, on MBS. The administration did, however, announce visa restrictions and sanctions against the RIF and other Saudi citizens involved. 

In a ceremonial move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement that said “the U.S. Department of State has taken action pursuant to the Khashoggi Ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Naming a ban after Khashoggi but refusing to hold MBS accountable is a purely ceremonial move. The Saudi Crown Prince needs to be held accountable for giving the order to kill a journalist who was simply doing his job.

The Biden administration lacking the backbone to place human rights over oil and profit sends a dangerous message: foreign nations can attack and murder journalists without consequence.

Jamal Khashoggi is not the first journalist to die but the actions of the previous administration and the current one have made certain that he will not be the last.

How many more faces and names will join the Newseum’s memorial because of this lack of action and accountability?