The Irish Times view on the Capital Gazette murders: An attack on the free press

The Annapolis atrocity reminds us how perilous the functions of reportage and accountability have become

A woman holds a copy of the Capital Gazette during a candlelight vigil to honour the five people who were killed inside the Capital Gazette newspaper Annapolis, Maryland, in the United States. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

A woman holds a copy of the Capital Gazette during a candlelight vigil to honour the five people who were killed inside the Capital Gazette newspaper Annapolis, Maryland, in the United States. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

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‘They were just trying to do their job for the public.” This comment on the five staff murdered last week at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, reportedly by a man who held a grudge against the paper, tells a fundamental truth about local journalism. Such papers are necessarily close to their readers and advertisers, often personally so, and they thrive on accurate reporting of community affairs. An assault on them is an assault on the community itself. If all politics is local so is all journalism. On a wider national or international canvass the same principles apply to journalism as a public good. This atrocity reminds us how perilous its functions of reportage and accountability have become at all those levels.

Journalists are imperilled by ruthless governments and parties, drug and gangland bosses and a rising tide of online trolling and death threats

Three days before the murders President Donald Trump described the media personnel reporting the political rally he addressed as “the enemy of the people”. That has been a recurrent theme of his rhetoric. He characterises media reportage and criticism as adversarial trading in partisan fake news hostile to his supporters. That consistent message sits uneasily with his statement after the shootings that “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being attacked while doing their job.” Despite Trump’s authoritarian tendencies American democracy has strong constitutional guarantees and legal safeguards for media freedom, freedom of expression and against executive over-reach. But many journalists there justifiably worry that his administration is undermining such safeguards and takes no action to defend conscientious journalism’s work for the public.

Mourners stand in silence during a vigil in response to a shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom on Friday in Annapolis. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP
Mourners stand in silence during a vigil in response to a shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom on Friday in Annapolis. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The International Federation of Journalists said worldwide threats against journalists are at “epidemic” levels in its annual report last year, when it estimated 81 were killed and 250 held captive for doing their jobs. Mexico, India, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines and Iraq top the country lists, where journalists are imperilled by ruthless governments and parties, drug and gangland bosses and a rising tide of online trolling and death threats. Murders of journalists last year in Slovakia and Malta highlighted these trends, leading to large public movements aiming to defend their work. The role of media investigations in exposing online manipulation of elections is another prominent feature attracting powerful enmity. So far this year 45 journalists have been killed.

Capital Gazette special publications editor Wendi Winters, one of the victims of shooting at the newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Photograph: AFP/Capital Gazette
Capital Gazette special publications editor Wendi Winters, one of the victims of shooting at the newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Photograph: AFP/Capital Gazette

These increasing dangers come at a time of major and difficult technological and economic transition for local, national and international journalism. Its job is made more difficult by falling print circulations and revenues just as its functions of accurate reporting, investigation, political accountability and fair commentary are needed all the more. They deserve greater protection in recognition of the values of pluralism, independence and transparency for the public good.

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