NewsStreet Scribe

Putin and Others Wage War Against Journalism

Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. Credit: Euku/Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has proved once again the old axiom that in war, truth is the first casualty. 

In a Boston Globe column published on Mar. 18, longtime war reporter Charles Sennott wrote that, so far since the beginning of the invasion on Feb. 24, four journalists have been killed while covering the war. Sennott lamented that “we are all reminded of the dangers as each day seems to bring new accounts of journalists being killed or wounded at the hands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.” He scorned what he called “Russia’s indiscriminate killing of civilians and its history of attacking journalists on many fronts.”

Indeed, the Kremlin regime of dictator Vladimir Putin has long waged war against dissident journalists inside Russia, and the crackdown has only worsened in the weeks after the invasion. Thousands of antiwar protesters have been beaten and jailed in cities across Russia, and journalists there are threatened with 15-year prison terms if their reporting clashes with the official government line. In an Orwellian move on Mar. 3, Putin closed down independent media outlets in Russia. “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated,” said Nobel Peace Prize-winning Russian newsman Dmitry Muratov.

On Mar. 14, an editor at Russia’s state TV network made a sensational protest against Putin’s war when she photobombed a live evening news broadcast, popping up behind a newscaster while holding a placard blasting the invasion and shouting, “Stop the war.” Marina Ovsyannikova said that she committed her bold protest because she had grown “ashamed of working on Kremlin propaganda” that “zombified” the Russian people. A court in Moscow gave her a fine instead of jail, but the Putin pogrom against dissident journalists continues.  

Five years ago, former President Donald Trump branded American opposition media with the Stalinesque term “enemy of the people.” In a New York Times op-ed on Feb. 25, 2017, Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists responded that “Mr. Trump’s relentless tirades against ‘fake news’ are emboldening autocrats and depriving threatened and endangered journalists of one of their greatest supporters—the United States government.” 

Today around the world, other emboldened autocrats have mounted Trumpian and Putinesque campaigns of their own to muzzle media watchdogs. In a report issued last December—before Russia’s Ukraine war began—the Committee to Protect Journalists released its grim global assessment that a record total of nearly 300 journalists were jailed around the world and at least 24 media members were “killed because of their coverage” in 2021.

Founded in New York in 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists “promotes press freedom worldwide” and defends the rights of media members “to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal.” As war rages on in Ukraine, and as repression runs rampant in nations around the world, journalists will again be in danger in dozens of countries in 2022—from Russia to China to Mexico to Saudi Arabia and even right here in the United States, a nation that enshrines freedom of the press in its Bill of Rights.   

The world needs the light of journalism to pierce the fog of war and the darkness of authoritarianism. Reporter Ernie Pyle became famous during World War II for his on-the-scene reporting from foxholes and battlefields, reports that endeared him to his readers and to the American troops who called him “the GI’s journalist.” He was killed by a Japanese sniper during a battle on a tiny Pacific island on Apr. 18, 1945, just a few months before the war ended. Today the annual National Columnists Day is observed every Apr. 18 in honor of Pyle’s life and legacy as a war reporter who made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of truth. 

Today, while battlefield reporters are in harm’s way in Ukraine and press freedom is endangered around the globe, words written by James Madison in 1799 still resound with truth here in the United States and worldwide: “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been obtained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”