Journalists worldwide are increasingly under threat, and threats against a free and independent media are existential threats to democracy more generally, commentators said before a live audience at the George Washington University Tuesday evening.
“Power always prefers to live with its own version of reality…and the enemies of democracy relentlessly go after news organizations and reporters who dare to scrutinize lies and wrongdoing,” School of Media and Public Affairs Director Silvio Waisbord said in his introductory remarks. “As someone who lived the first 25 years of my life in South America, mostly under authoritarian governments, I am fully aware that no democratic institution should be taken for granted—especially the press.”
“Journalism, Truth and Freedom,” held in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, featured CNN Correspondent Donie O’Sullivan and “544 Days” host Jason Rezaian, a former Terker Distinguished Fellow at SMPA. Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt moderated the panel, which was the third in a series of in-person CNN events held in partnership with GW this academic year in expansion of the network’s civic engagement platform, CITIZEN.
“I cannot think of a time in my lifetime when press freedoms were more challenged, more under fire both figuratively and literally,” said CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist, a member of the National Council for Media and Public Affairs who introduced the panel.
Disinformation and information chaos have created a uniquely hostile environment for journalism. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, released this week by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a record 28 countries were classified as “very bad” for journalists and press freedom generally.
Some American journalists have been shocked to find themselves subject to hostility in their own country, said Marquardt, who with O’Sullivan covered the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol last year. The teams from CNN faced verbal and physical threats from rioters as a rally in support of former President Donald Trump turned violent.
“No matter how long I’m a journalist, [Jan. 6] is going to go down as one of the most extraordinary moments that I've ever covered,” Marquardt said. “I think what was most jarring and shocking was that this is not something that I was covering overseas—where I'd been in plenty of hairy situations and uprisings—but it was [instead] getting screamed at and threatened saying things like ‘We will destroy you’ in English, in my mother tongue.”
O’Sullivan, who reports on the intersection of politics and technology, has made multiple trips to more recent Trump supporter rallies where interviewees repeat debunked talking points about the 2020 election and insist no Trump supporters were responsible for the violence at the Capitol. He joked that his ability to navigate spaces known to be hostile toward journalists in general and CNN in particular is thanks in part to the way he speaks: “The Irish accent helps, for sure.”
But he said basic respect and a nonjudgmental approach are the most important attributes he brings to these conversations. “I want to figure out what it is they believe and why they believe it,” he said. “I try not to speak down to them—I genuinely want to know why they’ve arrived at this point.”
Rezaian is no stranger to working under authoritarian conditions, or to the consequences of reporting on them. He lived and worked in Iran for five years as the chief of The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau under a “low hum” of surveillance and stress. Then he started to notice his social media and email accounts had been hacked; then he was being followed around the city. Finally, he and his wife “were arrested at gunpoint in our home, hauled off to prison, handcuffed and blindfolded and thrown into solitary confinement, accused of spying for the U.S. government.”
“I think you have to steel yourself and prepare yourself to work in those kinds of countries,” Rezaian said. “The threats are very real, but we make the decision that doing this work is that important and we’re committed to doing it.”
In that vein, Rezaian said, aspiring journalists at GW should remember how crucial the work is and take advantage of the opportunities the university offers.
“First and foremost, hone your skills as observers and listeners,” he said, citing former SMPA Director Frank Sesno’s class on interviewing skills as an inspiration. “I think the most important thing that I learned from sitting in on that class was just listening, which is not something that in this media landscape, in this political landscape, we are being encouraged to do. So I want to give you all the encouragement to do that.”
Rezaian remembered his own time as a Terker Fellow, during which he also lived on campus, as “an amazing experience in that I got to engage with students from all over the country and all over the world.”
“You’re at a wonderful institution for learning the best skills,” Rezaian said. “And I think you've got the greatest classroom in the world right outside your doors here in Washington, D.C.”