Back to Basics

Restoring America's press freedom priorities

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 59th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at

Can We Get Back to Prioritizing Press Freedom?

I’m not sure I would have a newsletter about press freedom if it weren’t for Donald Trump. I began publishing Pressing last June in the throes of unemployment, but I had previously written about press freedom crises and grew passionate about the rights and protections of journalists.

But those incidents I had written about—mainly, the battle over Jim Acosta’s press pass and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi—could not have happened the same way during another administration.

Let me clarify. Could a reporter get kicked out of the White House? Certainly.

The Nation reporter Robert Sherrill went through decades of the White House denying his press pass without explanation and his case provided precedent for Acosta. But, in the current media environment, I doubt we would’ve seen another president so brazenly punish one of cable news’ top reporters in this way.

And a Clinton administration likely would not have stopped Mohammed bin Salman from ordering Khashoggi’s assassination, but it would have responded very differently.

In the last four years, Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric has seeped into the essence of the country, further polluting the waters for a country that already distrusted institutions.

It’s hard to describe the total net effect on the press freedom community, but Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, puts it well in Foreign Policy:

“Until four years ago, press freedom in the United States was mostly a back-burner issue with legal specialists, civil liberties groups, and media companies waging fights against government secrecy and to defend the line on issues like defamation and journalists’ right to protect their sources. That began to change in 2016, as then candidate Donald Trump ramped up attacks on the press during his campaign, fomenting hostility toward journalists.

Trump’s abuses of the press had international consequences too:

Leaders around the world, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have all parroted Trump’s cries of fake news, seeking to discredit critical media coverage. Arrests and attacks on journalists by law enforcement during this year’s racial justice protests made international headlines, undercutting the United States’ credibility in calling out similar excesses when they occur abroad.

As we prepare for the Biden administration, I don’t know that we’ll ever heal the soul of our country or the relationship between the people and the press, but I know there’s work to do. And that goes beyond rhetoric. Biden won’t call journalists “fake news,” but he needs to do more to restore our credibility as a country that respects the free and independent press.

Nossel calls for better White House press protocols, more transparent and open government, less prosecution of leakers that threaten journalists’ source protection, better training for law enforcement on First Amendment rights, restore the credibility of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, end the “tit-for-tat battles with foreign governments” over the status of foreign journalists, and push for additional sanctions for human rights abusers and press freedom abusers around the world.

I hope that this newsletter and our nation can move on from the Trump administration, an era defined by undermining trust in reputable institutions. I hope I can write more about whistleblowers and open government and focus on press freedom imperatives in other countries. But the United States won’t be cured of Trumpism overnight, and the press will have permanent scars. Journalists need to move on, but also grapple with what transpired while working to rebuild trust.

What do you think about the Biden administration’s relationship with the press? Leave a reply in the comments.

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Clearly, it’s press freedom awards season. The rest of my newsletter will detail some of the community’s latest recognitions.

Magnitsky Awards

The Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards were given out Monday. The awards, like the Magnitsky Act, a law that allows the U.S. to sanction human rights abusers, are named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who was arrested and died in prison after investigating tax fraud by government officials. Bill Browder, a friend of Magnitsky, administered the awards, which were given to:

  • Loujain Alhathloul, the imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist;

  • The Belarus Free Theatre, an underground performance and activism group;

  • The children of assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia;

  • Nathan Law, a student activist in Hong Kong;

  • The Russian journalist Sergei Mokhnatkin, who was tortured and died in prison;

  • and Dutch legislators Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma and Pieter Omtzigt, who led an effort to get the European Union to adopt a version of the Magnitsky Act.


The Michael Kelly Award

Atlantic Media gave this year’s Michael Kelly Award to The New York TimesAzam Ahmed, tMexico City bureau chief for the paper of record. Here’s why:

The horrifying cycle of violence that afflicts so many Latin American countries is rendered with deeply felt humanity in Azam Ahmed’s five-part New York Times series, “Kill, or Be Killed: Latin America’s Homicide Crisis.” Ahmed explores the root causes of the many thousands of killings in the region every year. He moves beyond the numbers to paint memorable portraits: a brave Honduran pastor, a remorseful Mexican killer, a teenage Guatemalan mother. “Underpinning nearly every killing is a climate of impunity that, in some countries, leaves more than 95 percent of homicides unsolved,” Ahmed writes. “And the state is a guarantor of the phenomenon—governments hollowed out by corruption are either incapable or unwilling to apply the rule of law, enabling criminal networks to dictate the lives of millions.”

The award is named after Michael Kelly, The Atlantic’s former editor, who was the first American journalist to be killed in the Iraq War.

CPJ Awards

The Committee to Protect Journalists will present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award in a virtual ceremony Thursday. The press freedom group first announced the winners in July:

  • Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photojournalist who spent 102 days in prison in 2018 for posting a video about student protests to social media;

  • Mohammad Mosaed, an Iranian reporter who was forced to resign from his job under government pressure and was twice arrested for criticizing the regime;

  • Dapo Olorunyomi, the founder and publisher of The Premium Times, a Nigerian newspaper, who has been “a fierce defender of press freedom in Nigeria despite repeated government harassment” and has been arrested multiple times;

  • Svetlana Prokopyeva, a Russian correspondent for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, the U.S. state-run news agencies, who was convicted of “justifying terrorism” for discussing a suicide bomb attack on the radio.

Human rights attorney Amal Clooney will receive the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. Clooney has represented Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the Reuters reporters imprisoned in Myanmar, and Maria Ressa, the Philippine journalist charged with “cyber libel.”

The Media Freedom Award

Britain and Canada partnered for this first-ever award for media freedom, awarded to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The Canadian government said that the group was “singled out for its ongoing commitment to journalistic ethics and principles and its perseverance and self-sacrifice in the face of increased targeted crackdowns on media in Belarus.”


What Else Is New?

Columns and Opinions