Caldwell: Democracy thrives when journalists are safe, respected

Have America’s freedoms become a proverbial Jenga tower, with block after block being pulled away?

Sadly, many indicators say we are facing exactly that; a children’s game centered on a teetering structure that can only take so much before it comes crashing down.

Our country was built on the principles of freedom, perhaps most importantly those of speech, religion and the press.

We have seen those get continually eroded in recent years, raising many concerning questions, the largest of which may be: What happens to a nation when the foundation gives way?

That is what we must weigh as our freedoms continue to be assailed.

Free speech is often only defended when it is popular or has a message with which others agree. We seem to have forgotten Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s paraphrasing of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Freedom of religion sounds good when applied to ones similar to our own but often looks different when differences arise, despite the intent of our forefathers to create a country where all forms of worship were welcomed.

For obvious reasons, encroachment on the free press is extra concerning to me.

We have seen a steady message from the highest officials labeling the media as the enemy of the people and fake news. Those propelling this false narrative don’t let facts or truth get in their way.

Do you think this has no impact? Think again.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, downgraded the U.S. by three spots when it comes to freedom and safety for journalists. The drop, which puts our nation at 48 out of 180 countries, changes our status from “satisfactory” to “problematic.” It’s the first time since this ranking was created nearly two decades ago that the United States has fallen to these depths.

“The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media,” the report stated.

Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization specializing in the defense of media freedom “as the basic human right to be informed and to inform others,” creates its rankings using a 20-language survey for media professionals. Those answers are combined with data on abuses against journalists, constraints and violations.

The higher the country scores, the worse its press freedom.

Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark come in at the top of the list. Not surprisingly, countries led by dictators that do everything they can to control the media make up the bottom five: Vietnam, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan. Other notables include Russia at 149 and Saudia Arabia at 172.

“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in the report. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”

Democracy requires an informed, engaged public where journalists are safe and respected. America is going the wrong direction and everyone should care.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. He can be reached at 759-0095 or by email at