As a child growing up in an abnormally public family, the word “journalist” came to be one of the most negative terms from my upbringing. To me, journalism was directly associated with the paparazzi and “people” magazines, as well as a synonym of invasion of privacy, the twisting of facts, and borderline harassment in a quest for superficial fame and recognition.
As is evident, this was mostly born out of my personal experience. As a young impressionable child, my family and I often fell victim to flash mobs of photographers, sometimes hundreds in number blocking a path or doorway we were meant to traverse. I would drown in a sea of seemingly carefree people who seemed willing to do anything for the right shot, which often included mauling each other as well as us and our entourage for the chance at a closer picture.
I grew used to saying, almost robotically, "Nobody is perfect," upon meeting a journalist, or even a journalism major. It was almost foreign to me why anyone would want to start a career in a business I perceived to be not only shallow and unoriginal, but outright downgrading and offensive. This job seemed solely focused with the biased reporting of the activities of other men and women. I still remember seeing on my way to school the three-word buzz headlines so confidently plastered on the walls of press about my father or mother, often linked with embarrassing pictures and insulting subtitles.
I had to wait some 18-odd years for the term to be radically re-defined, and to gain an entirely new perspective. This happened during the January 2015 attacks against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, an event which profoundly affected me. The idea of having 12 French writers and cartoonists slaughtered in their workplace on the most banal of days in Paris for the sole crime of having drawn the wrong cartoon fundamentally disturbed me.
It is in the aftermath of the attack, especially after seeing the unending waves of worldwide support and cartoons drawn in opposition of the terrorists that the role and importance of a press, and more importantly a free press, came to have a bigger meaning for me. The war of ideas for which the attack(s) stood as testament highlighted the most basic and crucial of Western values: freedom of expression, dissent, blasphemy, freedom from physical repercussions, and most importantly in this case, freedom of satire.
It then became clear to me the importance of the journalistic organ in championing these rights and maintaining accountability. After the event, I had a personal experience to reference when studying the challenges of, say, our fellow North Koreans or Chinese dissidents when they were striving for a “free press,” or when reading about the historical struggles for free expression and accountable government. I now empathized with the cause I was born hating.
At the time of the 2015 attacks, the sides of this struggle seemed perfectly defined. The two sides as they stood were the supporters of democracy and freedom on the one hand, and the religious would-be censors and moral guardians on the other. On the one side lay the West and its liberal traditions, as well as free thinkers from all over the world striving for Western standards in their own respective countries. On the other, demagogues and illiberal tyrants. It seemed simple enough.
Further, the onslaught of international support we witnessed in the ensuing weeks and months after the attack made it clear to me that the world knew who had the right answer. A classic case of good vs. evil. No gray areas dared to show itself just yet.
But today, the tides seem to have shifted and the conflict lines have gained a worrying blur and indecisiveness. The Economist and the think tank Freedom House report that the muzzling of journalists and independent news media outlets is at its worst point in 13 years. According to the committee to protect journalists, the number of jailed journalists is at the highest level since the 1990s.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin and his czar-like tendencies have earned the Russian press a lower rating on the freedom index then the Venezuelan one. The Chinese press is entirely state-owned, and their Indian counterparts seem to lose all public funding after any critical opinions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi are aired. In Nicaragua and Hungary, Daniel Ortega and Viktor Orban have seemed ready to muzzle outlets on the mildest of urges. According to Freedom House, only 13 percent of the world enjoys a truly free press.
In the United States, the modern bastion of democracy, President Trump has deemed the press “the enemy of the people.” And even though America’s robust checks and balances and Constitution have withheld Trump’s illiberal outbursts, his rhetoric has set a worldwide trend. Multiple autocrats have since passed laws banning “fake news," with all the frightening ambiguity that goes along with this entirely subjective term.
Oct. 16 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who founded the blog Running Commentary, which covered the corruption plaguing some of Malta’s government and received some 300,000 visits per day in a country of 450,000 inhabitants. Galizia, who had become a household name in Malta, was murdered by a bomb planted under the front seat of her car. Today, some of her quotes remain spray-painted on the walls of the city. One particularly emotional slab of concrete reads: “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”
The world is still waiting to find out the truth of what happened to U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey to collect paperwork for his upcoming wedding and allegedly left in multiple pieces after having met a Saudi bone saw. His writings and opinions supportive of democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press, as well as his urge to critique the prince for not living up to his standards, were a thorn in the side of Mohammed bin Salman’s public image.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
"Jamal spoke up against oppression, but he paid for the Saudi people’s demand for freedom with his own life. If he is dead, and I hope that is not the case, thousands of Jamals will be born today, on his birthday. His voice and his ideas will reverberate, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, and across the world. Oppression never lasts forever. Tyrants eventually pay for their sins."
For me, the word journalism is no longer associated with cheap people magazines and short, misleading headlines. I no longer think of the legions of fame-hungry, smelly photographers out for a quick buck when I hear the word. Rather, it is once again a synonym of freedom, skepticism, accountability, humor, and heroism.
It is the faces of Galizia and Khashoggi who appear in my mind when I hear the word "journalism," and their words which I feel the duty to read and share as much as I can. I think of them and the countless other Russian, Chinese, Hungarian, North Korean, Turkish, and Venezuelan writers, cartoonists, editors, and investigators who refuse to give in to puritanism and orthodoxy, and who willingly risk their lives and freedom for an informed public by once more taking up the millennia-old struggle between freedom of thought and totalitarianism.
Today, it is they who pay the cost of truth, and we who are indebted to them.
Louis Sarkozy is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a student in philosophy and religion at New York University. He is the youngest son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.