Attacks on journalists endanger us all

By IWMF executive director Elisa Lees Munoz and program manager Jin Ding | Originally Published: The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership Newsletter

Free, independent journalism is a cornerstone of our society, recognized by the founders and embodied in the First Amendment. Attacks against the news media are used to avoid answering questions that inform the people.

The last few years have seen a constant stream of attacks on journalists and truthful, fact-driven journalism. That these attacks now seem mundane should scare all of us.

The latest community to face such attacks are journalists of Asian descent. President Trump responded to Weijia Jiang, a reporter working for CBS News, with “Why don’t you ask China?” when she questioned him about his covid-19 response. Just last month, he asked her, “Who are you with?” Then he said, “Nice and easy. Just relax.”

This is nothing new for a president who has repeatedly attacked women journalists of color. We have heard defenders of the President argue that these comments are not racist nor sexist. But, those accustomed to being on the other side of such attacks recognize racist and sexist code when they hear it. Relax implies, “Don’t be hysterical,” a tired, sexist trope. “Ask China,” implies “You are not one of us, where are your loyalties?”

In the current environment, these attacks present a danger to us all and put a target on the backs of journalists of Asian descent. The President is sending a message: These individuals are fair game, and others are invited to help silence them, prevent them from doing their work and stop them from holding him, and his administration, accountable. As a result, attacks against individuals who appear to be of Asian descent have increased since the pandemic began. In March, Weijia Jiang tweeted, “a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face.”

President Trump is not the only leader using public forums like White House press briefings, political rallies and Twitter to attack journalists, putting them in danger and setting off a barrage of attacks against them. They include Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s attacks against Patricia Campos Bello; Philippine President Duarte’s incessant attacks against Maria Ressa; or India’s Prime Minister Modi’s orchestrated attacks against Rana Ayuub to name only a few high-profile examples. Leaders around the world target journalists to stop their reporting. They use gender, race and religion to invite opportunistic attacks, which occur online and in person.

A troubling practice at the best of times, public targeting of a press corps that questions a government’s response to a pandemic is dangerous to journalists and dangerous to the public. Some governments are going beyond labels. In China, video journalist Qiushi Chen has been missing since February after he reported in Wuhan. He was on the top of One Free Press Coalition list in March.

This response is not limited to Asian countries, but we are standing up for all Asian journalists and journalists of Asian descent because they have been targeted, and because we need them to do their work without fear or interference.