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2018-07-05 / Voices

Journalists’ Job Can Be Dangerous Everywhere

MAKING A NOISE IN THIS WORLD
BY JIM KENT

It’s beyond ironic that on the day after this country celebrates Independence Day – which eventually led to our declared freedoms of speech and of the press, we should be discussing the deaths of 5 journalists killed by a disgruntled reader.

But that’s the reality we live in.

And so it is that Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters are being mourned…for doing their jobs.

Sadly, this tragedy isn’t as uncommon as one might think.

Typing “5 journalists killed” in Google to get more information on the incident at Baltimore’s Capital Gazette immediately brought up a related headline for “The Balibo Five” – a group of Australian television journalists “accidentally” killed by Indonesian special forces soldiers in 1975 while covering Indonesia’s invasion of East Tumor.

A 6th journalist sent to investigate his colleagues’ deaths was summarily executed by members of the Indonesian military.

Nice country.

And though 2017 was the “least deadly” year for journalists worldwide in 14 years – with “only” 65 losing their lives: 26 while participating in assignments, and 39 deliberately murdered because their reporting threatened political, economic or criminal interests, the aim in each case was to silence them.

Fortunately, such behavior doesn’t happen in the U.S.; well, not too often.

The last journalists killed in this country prior to “The Baltimore 5” were Alison Parker and Adam Ward, shot during live TV coverage in Moneta, Virginia by a former colleague. Before that incident The Oakland Post’s Chauncey Bailey was killed by the target of his community corruption investigation.

The list goes back to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a newspaper editor and abolitionist killed in 1837 by a mob supporting slavery and includes more than 60 journalists.

And though it might be surprising that more haven’t lost their lives over the last 242 years in the name of a free press where anyone can pretty much say whatever they want about anyone – regardless of their position or power, it’s still disconcerting to realize that the flip side of that coin – no matter how infrequently it may land on “tails”, is death.

I’ve been a member of “The Fourth Estate” – the term for journalists derived from the traditional European concept of 3 estates of the realm: clergy, nobility and commoners, for over 30 years. And though I’ve never been on the front lines of battle covering a combat situation, or even in some urban environment bearing witness to a violent civil incident, last week’s shootings by a man “allegedly” upset with the Capital Gazette’s stories about his criminal activities show that a dangerously negative reaction to the press can come from anywhere and out of nowhere.

When I first began writing, my principle forum was commentaries in area New York and New Jersey newspapers where I offered my opinion on anything I felt should be given more attention than it was receiving. As time went by and I was published on a regular basis, my wife and I began to joke about not answering the phone or opening packages left at the door, but we were both half-serious.

In that big city environment where stepping-on-toes or calling into question local bigwigs’ decisions, “things” were known to happen. They never did… to me. But there was the occasional disgruntled letter by someone who’d tracked me down, along with phone calls like the one from Pequannock’s city manager who was pretty upset about my criticism of how he did business.

Still, that’s part of the territory and to be expected whether you’re writing a column or an investigative report, covering northern New Jersey, Rapid City or the Pine Ridge Reservation – where I’ve found more than one tribal official “unhappy” with my writing.

Life goes on, and it should – uninterrupted - when you live in a country where the freedom to speak your mind, civilly - though at times critically, about any person, place or institution is held paramount above all other rights designated by our Constitution.

While the revelry of our nation’s celebration is fresh in our minds and the tragedy at Baltimore lies heavy on our hearts, remember that the person who “puts pen to paper” to share information in this digital age of internet access can now be any one of us.

As a result, it’s each individual’s responsibility to ensure that their words are true, but it’s also their right to share them without fear of violent reprisal – whether by the hands of a criminal, or from a podium at the White House.

After all, this isn’t Russia…yet.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at kentvfte@gwtc.net.

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