Press Freedom Then and Now

Introduction by ELEANOR HEDGES DUROY, age 12

According to a 2015 index released by Reporters Without Borders, the United States ranks 49th compared to the rest of the world on the issue of freedom of press. Press freedom is very important for journalists who often uncover wrongdoing by powerful governments and corporations. This frequently involves interviewing whistleblowers and other individuals with access to top-secret information. Sometimes journalists risk their jobs and even their own safety to protect these sources and break difficult stories. These are some of the stories of American journalists who have spoken out on behalf of people whose voices needed to be heard by the public.

Ida B. Wells ● 1862 – 1931

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Ida B. Wells was an African-American journalist and activist who fought against lynching in the 1890s in the United States. Wells worked for several publications, co-owned a black newspaper called the Free Speech and Headlight and started a movement that made it all the way to the White House.

In 1892, after three black men who owned a grocery store in Memphis were killed by a lynch mob, she took action by writing about it. In response to her journalism, a mob broke into and destroyed the Free Speech and Headlight office and threatened to kill her unless she moved.

Even though Wells had to leave her home, she continued to fight against lynching. She helped to establish the Negro Fellowship League, NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women. According to Wells, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Rubén Salazar ● 1928 – 1970


Rubén Salazar was a Mexican-born journalist who covered the 1970s Chicano movement, which was started by Mexican Americans who wanted financial, social and political protection.

After 11 years at the Los Angeles Times, he left to join a Spanish-language news station, where he covered police brutality against Latinos.

On August 29,1970, while covering the National Chicano Moratorium March, which protested that Latinos made up 5.5 percent of those killed in the Vietnam War, Salazar was hit in the head by a tear gas bottle and died. Some believed that Salazar’s death was an assassination, not an accident.

Despite his tragic death at 42, he continues to inspire Latino reporters today. “It was the first time I’d seen a Mexican Spanish surname byline on stories about the community in which I had grown up,” journalism professor Felix Gutierrez told Democracy Now!

Mumia Abu-Jamal ● 1954 – Present

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia radio journalist and member of the radical 1960s Black Panther Party, vocally opposed racism and the use of force by police officers. He was being tracked by the FBI because of his outspokenness and connections with the Black Panthers when he was arrested in 1981 and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. Mumia maintains his innocence, and according to Amnesty International, “numerous aspects of [his] case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.”

Mumia is no longer on death row but remains in prison, where he has published books and reported on prison life, the Black Panthers and justice issues. In 2014 Pennsylvania passed a prisoner gag law in an attempt to prevent prisoners from communicating with journalists and publishing books from behind bars, thus keeping the public from hearing their perspectives.

James Risen ● 1955 – Present

PHOTO: Democracy Now!
PHOTO: Democracy Now!

James Risen, a New York Times journalist and author of the book State of War, has lived for six years under the threat of jail for keeping his source secret. He refused to testify in court for the trial of a former CIA officer who was charged with revealing secret government information in Risen’s book about a failed U.S. attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite government demands, James Risen managed to keep his journalistic oath to protect his source. In January 2015, the Justice Department gave up their effort to force Risen to testify in this case. “The significance of this goes beyond James Risen. It affects journalists everywhere,” says Joel Kurtzberg, Risen’s lawyer. “Journalists need to be able to uphold that confidentiality in order to do their job.”

Laura Poitras ● 1964 – Present

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras became internationally known for working with Glenn Greenwald to release documents acquired by Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance. The Guardian was the first to publish the information, upsetting not only the government, but raising the issue of how much freedom the press should have. The information is slowly being released over time.

Laura Poitras moved to Berlin, Germany, to finish the documentary Citizenfour about Snowden after being put on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s watchlist. Since 2006, she has repeatedly been taken for questioning at airport gates. For example, at JFK Airport in New York City in 2010, armed agents were present to meet her. She told Salon that it is “very traumatizing to come home to your own country and have to go through this every time.”

Glossary of Terms

Whistleblower: a person who informs an organization or the public about illegal activity happening within an organization or the government.
Lynching: an illegal execution often meant to intimidate a marginalized group of people.
Black Panther Party: a revolutionary African-American party that was founded in 1966 with the purpose of combating police brutality through citizen patrols of black neighborhoods and self defense.

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