2018 was a deadly year for journalists, with more than 50 killed worldwide. As journalists increasingly come under fire – and criticism – both in the U.S. and abroad, the international press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, advocates for their rights.
The nonprofit works internationally with local journalists to monitor the treatment of the press by authorities in 130 countries.
Below, an edited Q&A with Chicagoan Maryam Banikarim, the newly elected board chair of Reporters Without Borders USA.
Tell us about the work of Reporters Without Borders
It’s based in Paris and was founded in 1985. It’s similar to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and while CPJ might be better known in the U.S., Reporters Without Borders is often better known internationally. It was founded by four people, one of whom was active with Doctors Without Borders, hence the name. We have U.S. offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
We’re well known for the World Press Freedom Index, which we started in 2002. Sadly, the U.S. has been declining in its positions on this index. It started declining under President Obama because of lawsuits against whistleblowers. Norway is currently No. 1, followed by Sweden and the Netherlands. The U.S. is No. 45 on the index.
We also report on the deadliest countries to work in. Afghanistan, followed by Syria, Mexico, Yemen then the U.S. Sadly, we now make that ranking, because of the Annapolis, Maryland, shooting last year. We also issue a list of press freedom predators, which includes world leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Raul Castro and Joseph Kabila from the Congo.
Another thing Reporters Without Borders is known for is having a network of 130 correspondents in different countries. These 130 people are volunteers, but really are our eyes and ears on the ground, reporting back and investigating incidents in these countries.
How did you become involved with Reporters Without Borders?
Press freedom is something that has always been important to me. I grew up in Iran and was there in 1979 when the revolution happened. Even as a kid, press freedom was important to me. From an early age, I was always interested in the power of media. I spent some time in Paris during college, working in the offices of Magnum Photographers. While there I worked closely with Abass, a well-known Iranian photojournalist.
Then when I worked in media, whether at Gannett or NBC, although I was on the marketing side, I always worked closely with the newsroom in protecting that separation of church and state, as we say. I’ve always advocated for the importance of journalistic independence. And as a marketing and communications expert, I know how to advocate and raise awareness for an organization. That’s what I hope to do for Reporters Without Borders.
Your thoughts on the challenges facing journalists under the current U.S. administration?
There’s definitely a more hostile environment for all journalists. We now have a president setting that example. The fact that we have a term like “fake media,” and it gets repeated, is sad. We’ve had threats against CNN and a man recently called and threatened employees at the Boston Globe, using the same language as the president. We’re also getting more information about U.S. journalists feeling vulnerable, getting equipment seized at the border, having Freedom of Information requests declined.
In addition, you’re now seeing Canada and Northern European countries declining on our World Press Freedom Index, which is troubling. Of course, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris was shocking and when you have the killers of Jamal Khashoggi going unpunished, it becomes the new norm.
The U.S. used to be a model for free press in the world. If we don’t take a leadership stand and say we’re going to crack down on it, it emboldens governments and others to attack the media. Journalists are telling us they feel more threatened. It’s definitely a riskier job than it used to be. Despite that, Northwestern’s Medill tells me the number of journalism applicants is rising. So despite the difficult working conditions, people still want to do this.