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The Inside Story – World Press Freedom Day | Episode 142

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The Inside Story: A free Press Matters: World Press Freedom Day

Episode 142 – May 2, 2024

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Unidentified Narrator:

This week on The Inside Story…

UNESCO marks World Press Freedom Day…

VOA journalists and independent media in the line of duty… and working under fire.

From the United States Capitol to Beijing…France to South Africa… see how dedicated journalists fight to bring you the world’s most important stories.

Now… on The Inside Story…World Press Freedom Day.

The Inside Story:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA Press Freedom Editor:

Hi I’m Jessica Jerreat, VOA’s Press Freedom Editor here outside the White House in Washington.

As UNESCO marks World Press Freedom Day, the world’s attention turns to the role journalism plays in society. From holding the powerful to account, to investigating the issues that affect their communities most, reporters act as the public watchdog And ensure that news flows, even to the most censored countries.

We take a look at some of those remarkable efforts later in the show.

But we start off here with a look at local media covering US politics, with my colleague here in Washington.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT, VOA Correspondent:

Hi, I’m Cristina Caicedo Smit, here at the Capitol in Washington. Regional reporters from across the U.S. are here covering national politics for local audiences. In a key election year, they are a vital resource.

The Iron City. Four hundred and forty-six bridges span the three rivers that converge here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And one bridge connects its 300,000-plus residents with national politics from a local angle: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Jonathan Salant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Are you concerned that progressives are not going to come along to vote for Biden during the elections based on what is going on in Israel?

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

Heading the Washington beat is Jonathan Salant. Reporting from the capital for about four decades, he has covered his fair share of presidents, elections, congressional policy and scandal.

When he started out, Ronald Reagan was president and Salant was one of hundreds of local reporters covering national politics.

Now, in an era of political partisanship, rising distrust in news, and mass closures of local media outlets, fewer journalists work this beat.

Currently, only about two dozen states have reporters accredited to cover Congress, according to data from the U.S. Senate Press Gallery.

Jonathan Salant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

I mean, in New York alone, there was Buffalo, there was Rochester, there was Albany, there was Syracuse and now they’re all gone.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

In swing states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, that leaves local reporters with an outsize task.

Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Nikki Haley at this hour is holding a news conference announcing she’s suspending her campaign for president…

I do have to just keep in mind I’m a one-woman show. I can’t do everything. Also, keep in mind that I’m not the national media. I’m not competing with national reporters.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

From her home outside Washington, Mitchell has a busy schedule. She covers the Capitol, produces a daily newsletter and co-hosts a podcast for audiences back in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like Salant, she remembers when more local reporters had a seat at White House briefings.

Tia Mitchell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We share and we rotate, whereas before so many of the newspapers and the Regional Reporters Association, back in the day, might have had their own seat.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

Jonathan Salant’s job is far from glamorous. He spends weekends going over bills and policy.

Jonathan Salant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

You go through hundreds of pages and looking up all the local lawmakers and the bills they sponsored.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

His focus is always the local perspective.

Jonathan Salant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

I always say my job is to tell the public what their public officials are doing.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

Salant has earned a reputation on the Hill for being attentive and asking tough questions.

And he is a familiar face to staffers and press secretaries.

Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

He has a good mustache, for anyone who doesn’t know. Go ahead.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

His reporting supports the work of colleagues back in Pittsburgh, like Hallie Lauer, who covers City Hall.

Hallie Lauer, City Hall Reporter:

Balance the campaign trail stuff versus what the voters are thinking.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

She and Salant work closely to make news from the Capitol relevant to their readers.

Hallie Lauer, City Hall Reporter:

So we’re collaborating on projects like that all the time where, ‘Hey, this lawmaker earmarked $5 million for this project.’ And then I get to go out and talk to the people planning the project here and be like, ‘What does this money mean to you?’”

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

At the Hazelwood Cafe in Pittsburgh, Dasawn Gray is upfront about what matters most to his community.

Dasawn Gray, Hazelwood Cafe Owner:

Having a grocery store, having a dentist’s office, having a bank like with main like, what other neighborhood(s) have, like Hazel deserves those things.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

Running a business in the neighborhood where he grew up, Gray has seen the effects of store closures, high housing costs and gentrification.

And all the while, local reporters have told the community’s story.

Dasawn Gray, Hazelwood Cafe Owner:

Well, I think local news is important because it shares not only the bad things, also about the positive things happening in the neighborhood.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

As for Salant, he just wants to keep Pittsburgh’s residents informed.

Jonathan Salant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Somebody’s got to tell them what’s going on. That the lawmaker they send over in Washington, what he or she [is] doing. That’s our job to let you know what your officials are up to.

CRISTINA CAICEDO SMIT:

In this election year, Washington-based reporters like Salant are vital watchdogs, ensuring transparency, asking questions, and making sure campaign promises are upheld and local issues resolved.

With Liam Scott in Washington and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cristina Caicedo Smit, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT:

News deserts present a big challenge to American journalists. But in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s repressive policies are creating a media blackhole. The Kremlin is also detaining two American journalists: Alsu Kurmasheva and Evan Gershkovich.

Here’s what President Joe Biden had to say about their unlawful detention at the White House Correspondents Dinner:

President Joe Biden:

Journalism is clearly not a crime. Not here, not there, not anywhere in the world. And (Vladimir) Putin should release Evan (Gershkovich) and Alsu (Kurmasheva) immediately.

JESSICA JERREAT:

Russia’s crackdown on independent media is affecting its own journalists too. With increased legal risk for reporting truthfully on Putin’s war in Ukraine, many have gone into exile. From Paris, Lisa Bryant has the story.

LISA BRYANT, VOA Correspondent:

Arnold Khachaturov got into journalism to provide his fellow Russians with the kind of news not seen on state-controlled channels. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and imposed new media restrictions that upended the Moscow-based reporter’s career.

Arnold Khachaturov, Novaya Gazeta Europe:

Every independent media was thinking about how to continue because they were blocked a few days after the war started.

LISA BRYANT:

Khachaturov is one of the more than 1,500 Russian journalists estimated to be living in exile. This year, his news outlet — Novaya Gazeta Europe — opened a third office … in Paris.

It’s a two-person operation — sharing a co-working space like this one, which provides offices and other resources to the exile community.

Khachaturov covers European and Russian news for audiences inside and outside his home country — including the latest on the war in Ukraine. Inside Russia, the topic is heavily censored.

Social media is crucial to his work.

Arnold Khachaturov, Novaya Gazeta Europe:

It is indeed very hard to get information in Russia, not only because we’re not physically there. But also because we’re an undesirable organization — so for people who talk with us, it’s a real danger.

LISA BRYANT:

Novaya Gazeta Europe is one of dozens of media outlets that Moscow has labeled “undesirable” — a designation that puts its staff and sources in and out of Russia at risk of legal action and imprisonment.

Jeanne Cavelier, Reporters Without Borders:

It always has been difficult for independent journalists in Russia. But the situation has been getting worse with the war in Ukraine, with the whole military censorship. You can be put in prison for anything.

LISA BRYANT:

To help exiled Russian independent journalists broadcast their reports, Reporters Without Borders launched Svoboda, a satellite package that includes Novaya Gazeta Europe and other news channels. Supported by the European Union, it aims to reach several million households in Russia.

Jeanne Cavelier, Reporters Without Borders:

Television is, can be, a powerful tool for Russian people to change their mind about the war — to have the facts, real facts. Instead of propaganda.

LISA BRYANT

Russian journalist and analyst Galia Ackerman says it was even more difficult accessing independent news in Soviet times. Living in Moscow decades ago, she and her husband listened to foreign radio late at night, when there was less jamming.

Galia Ackerman, Russian Analyst:

My parents never came to listen with us. They didn’t care. Because for them it was simpler for them not to know.

LISA BRYANT

That’s one reason she’s skeptical that the new satellite operation will make much of a difference inside Russia.

Galia Ackerman, Russian Analyst:

Most of the population — I think, I’m afraid — do not want to know, because it’s unbearable to know. Because Russia is committing a big continuous crime. Crime against Ukraine, but crime against its own people.

LISA BRYANT

Khatchaturov is optimistic that democracy and free expression will one day come to Russia. But first, he says, he and other exiled journalists need to prepare for a long struggle.

Lisa Bryant, VOA News, Paris.

JESSICA JERREAT:

Exile offers journalists protection from immediate retaliation. But distance is not always a guarantee of safety. Journalists from China, for instance, flee Beijing’s reach but still find themselves targeted with attacks, threats, and surveillance. From Berlin, here’s Liam Scott:

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Correspondent:

Su Yutong has become a skilled chef. Cooking dishes she loved in Beijing connects the journalist with her home country and helps fill the long periods spent home alone.

The reason for her self-imposed isolation: years of attacks and threats from China.

Su Yutong, Journalist:

I keep telling the truth, so they [China] want me to shut up, including by threatening me.

LIAM SCOTT:

Sharing a banned book on Tiananmen Square back in 2010 began Su’s troubles. Police raided her home in Beijing and held her under house arrest.

But with the help of friends, she escaped to Europe.

For a while, Germany’s capital provided a sense of safety. Su wrote human rights stories for Deutsche Welle and then Radio Free Asia. But the sense of safety soon disappeared.

In 2022, strange men started turning up at her building, brought there by an underground sex website that listed her address.

Su Yutong, Journalist:

I felt very disgusted and very humiliated, and I had some mental health problems at the time. I was afraid to walk down the street.

LIAM SCOTT

The worst was yet to come. In 2023, assailants used Su and two Chinese activists’ identities to book rooms at luxury hotels in Berlin and other cities. Then, they called in fake bomb threats.

Experts say that Su’s case is extreme even for Beijing, which ranks among the worst perpetrators of transnational repression.

Mareike Ohlberg, German Marshall Fund:

The basic tactics of transnational repression are usually geared toward showing people that they can’t get away from the Chinese government.

LIAM SCOTT

The driving goal, says Ohlberg, is to stop any criticism of China overseas.

Neither China’s embassy in Berlin nor its foreign ministry responded to VOA’s requests for comment.

Being targeted is a lonely experience. Over a two-year period, Su barely left her apartment. She says even something as simple as a walk in the park can feel tinged with danger.

Su Yutong, Journalist:

When I went out, I kept checking to see if there were any suspicious people around me, and I rarely even went out of the house.

LIAM SCOTT

Such a response is typical, experts say.

Gözde Böcü, Citizen Lab:

Paranoia is a common response across different communities. And often people fear that other actors or individuals within the community could spy on them. And these fears are not unfounded.

LIAM SCOTT

But now, Su says she feels less afraid.

Su Yutong, Journalist:

They didn’t expect me to slowly come out of that shadow. I think they should be afraid, not me. They can’t shut me up. They can’t achieve this goal.

LIAM SCOTT

Her life is fuller again, but Su’s apartment is still sparse. After the 2023 incidents, police recommended she move. When she did, she left nearly everything behind.

Except the tools needed to keep reporting.

Su Yutong, Journalist:

China blocks the truth. It needs to have a lot of journalists to tell the real stories, tell the real events and the truth.

LIAM SCOTT

In one way, says Su, there’s a sense of comfort in knowing that Beijing is scared too. If they weren’t, Su believes, they wouldn’t try so hard to silence her.

Liam Scott, VOA News, Berlin.

\

JESSICA JERREAT:

The trial of former President Donald Trump is underway in New York. Among those testifying, a former tabloid publisher who says he helped suppress negative stories. Arash Arabasadi has more…

ARASH ARABASADI, VOA Correspondent:

Journalists gather outside the New York courthouse where jurors are hearing testimony in former President Donald Trump’s trial on 34 felony counts of falsifying information. The former President is accused of hiding payments meant to suppress negative stories about him… in an effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

Among those taking the stand was David Pecker, former head of the National Enquirer. The tabloid publisher testified that he pledged to be Trump’s “eyes and ears” for the 2016 election.

That included a promise to publish positive stories about Trump… publish negative stories about his opponents… and also to buy exclusive rights to negative stories and then never publish them, a practice known as “catch and kill.”

The practice of buying stories is known as checkbook journalism. Here’s what that means.

Checkbook journalism, or brown envelope journalism as it is known in Africa, is where newsrooms either pay sources for exclusive interviews, or accept money to report on a subject favorably— or as alleged in the Trump case — not at all.

Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst, Poynter Institute:

Among the many things wrong with it (is that) it sort of fosters unreliable sources who may be in it for the money and may be shading the truth, or in some cases, just making it up.

ARASH ARABASADI:

In the U.S. and Britain, the practice is most common in tabloid media. In other countries, it comes in the form of bribes or attempts to influence reporting.

The Society of Professional Journalists tells members to be wary of sources offering cash. And VOA’s own guide says it is “a violation of journalistic ethics.”

Christina Veiga, News Literacy Project:

We don’t want people to become cynical about news sources. We want them to understand that a credible news organization is not going to pay for sources or for stories, because it could affect the accuracy of what they’re reporting.

ARASH ARABASADI:

Payments for journalism are largely seen as an ethical issue. Associations like the International Federation of Journalists advocate for higher pay to avoid the lure of cash for content.

Part of the concern: the loss of objectivity, and in turn, the loss of trust from audiences.

Christina Veiga, News Literacy Project:

The aim of journalism is to produce fair, accurate, (and) useful information, and once you start paying for sources, that gets muddied.

ARASH ARABASADI:

As the first of Trump’s criminal cases moves forward, with the former president denying the 34 charges against him of falsifying business records, the courtroom sheds light on this murky issue of media ethics.

Arash Arabasadi, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT:

As part of a border plan in early 2023 the White House extended its humanitarian parole program for those fleeing uneasy climates in Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti. For Nicaraguan journalists who have long been jailed, threatened, or expelled, the program enables them to relocate to safety and keep their media outlets running. Veronica Villanfane has more:

VERONICA VILLANFANE, VOA Correspondent:

The San Juan River. Two hundred kilometers of water separates these journalists from their home country — and their readers in Nicaragua.

Forced into exile but still reporting from neighboring Costa Rica, the journalists wanted to mark the 98th anniversary of their paper, La Prensa. So they briefly returned to Nicaragua’s shores.

Hans Lawrence Ramírez, La Prensa:

I remember there was a moment when we were on the boat and there was a profound silence from the entire team. Only the noise of the engine could be heard.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

The clandestine approach was necessary. Almost all La Prensa’s staff — reporters, editors, even the drivers — were forced to flee government persecution.

For them, producing a special edition from Nicaraguan territory sends the government a message.

Nayel Martínez, La Prensa:

It was a way of telling the dictatorship, well, that, ‘Here we are, from where we should never have left: Nicaragua.

Óscar Navarrete, La Prensa:

Show the dictatorship that we are not on our knees. Show the dictatorship that independent journalism is present and active and is penetrating the Nicaraguan population.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

After two years in exile, the brief return was deeply moving, Navarrete says.

Óscar Navarrete, La Prensa:

I felt fulfilled, I swept my hands with the waters of the river and enjoyed that water. I put it on my forehead and said, ‘Here is my country again, and here I am again.’

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

But a permanent return is not an option for the La Prensa team. In 2021, President Daniel Ortega’s government seized the newsroom as part of what authorities said was a customs fraud investigation.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann, La Prensa Publisher:

A contingent of police and riot police arrived at La Prensa. They took over La Prensa, they took over the facilities with us inside.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

Then they arrested the publisher, Juan Lorenzo Holmann.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann, La Prensa Publisher:

I spent 545 days in El Chipote (prison). I was tried, sentenced to nine years, a fine of $3 million for money laundering, because, obviously, everything they presented were totally absurd arguments, a circus.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

Investigations and arrests are a reality for Nicaragua’s journalists, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The office of Nicaragua’s government spokesperson did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Holmann was freed in 2023. But not before authorities expelled him from the country and stripped him of his citizenship.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

Now in the U.S., Holmann works with his team in exile to keep La Prensa going.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann, La Prensa Publisher:

We work with many sacrifices and many hardships, but always with the intention of continuing to serve.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

Adding to the complexity of their job, the team has been reduced from 400 collaborators in 2018 to just 47. But those remaining refuse to be silenced.

Oscar Navarrete, La Prensa:

We inform the country 24 hours a day, not just to Nicaragua, but also the world, about what is happening inside and outside of Nicaragua.

VERONICA VILLANFANE:

The journalists are confident they will one day return to their home — and their newsroom. And that La Prensa will live on to celebrate its 100-year anniversary.

For Donaldo Hernandez in San Jose, Costa Rica, Veronica Villafañe, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT:

Presidential candidate Donald Trump plans to campaign this week in the Midwestern state of Michigan. It’s a state that President Biden and Vice President Harris have already visited a few times this year. It’s also one of a handful of swing states that could decide the results of November’s presidential election. Here’s Scott Stearns with the latest installment of our series USA Votes 20-24

SCOTT STEARNS, VOA Correspondent:

Voters in Michigan chose Donald Trump in 2016 but Joe Biden in 2020. It is a state both campaigns believe they can win this November.

Part of Trump’s approach in Michigan is winning over auto workers whose jobs, he says, are threatened by Biden’s renewable energy plans, including subsidies for electric vehicles.

It’s a message he is bringing to a rally in central Michigan Wednesday.

Donald Trump, Republican Presidential Candidate:

We’ll be in Michigan, a state that he’s destroyed because of the auto industry. We’re not going to have any jobs left in Michigan. No auto jobs left in Michigan. They’re all going over to China and other places with this ridiculous EV mandate, electric vehicle mandate.

SCOTT STEARNS:

The main union representing auto workers in Michigan endorsed Biden over Trump.

Paul Torrente is a union representative.

Paul Torrente, Michigan Voter:

Donald Trump most likely has the support of big corporations in Michigan because they are the ones that actually hold the working class down. So, for him to actually say that he has Michigan, he doesn’t have the working people in Michigan, he has the 1%.

SCOTT STEARNS:

That is a message Biden is using to keep union-household voters, who an NBC News poll says still favor him over Trump but by a smaller margin than four years ago.

Joe Biden, U.S. President:

Donald Trump’s vision of America is one of revenge and retribution. A defeated former president who sees the world from Mar-a-Lago and bows down to billionaires, who looks down on American union workers. It’s not just that he’s not supporting, he looks down on us.

SCOTT STEARNS:

A potential liability for Biden in Michigan is traditionally Democratic voters who oppose his support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

Omar Suleiman is an Imam at the Islamic Center of Detroit.

Omar Suleiman, Michigan Voter:

He is intentionally, I think, pursuing a policy that is not only inhumane and disgusting to everyone that hoped for something different, but will be consequential in November 2024.

SCOTT STEARNS:

In Michigan’s Adams Township, voters believe Biden has mishandled immigration and lost control of the border, says township supervisor Randy Johnson.

Randy Johnson, Michigan Voter:

Look how many, and I’m not saying this in a bad way, but look how many people came in. Look how many people we didn’t know came in. Look how many bad people came in. Trump’s wall would’ve isolated all that.

SCOTT STEARNS:

Trump says Michiganders are tired of Biden.

Donald Trump, Republican Presidential Candidate:

This November, the great state of Michigan is going to tell crooked Joe Biden you’re fired, get the hell out of here.

SCOTT STEARNS:

Biden says it is the strength of labor unions that will help him win re-election.

Joe Biden, U.S. President:

You’re the best in the world. You know, you had my back in 2020. And because of you, I’m standing here as president of the United States of America. Because of you. And that’s a fact. Because of you, in 2024, we’re going to make Donald Trump a loser again.

SCOTT STEARNS

A CBS News poll of Michigan voters last week found Biden has a slim lead over Trump, with nearly two-thirds of Michiganders saying voting for president this year matters more than it did four years ago.

Scott Stearns, VOA News:

JESSICA JERREAT:

That’s all for now. Thanks for Watching the Inside Story: A Free Press Matters.

For the latest news you can, log on to VOA news dot com. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook at VOA News.

To get all the Press Freedom related content, follow me on X formerly Twitter at @jessicajerreat. Catch up on past episodes at our free streaming service, VOA Plus.

See you next week, for The Inside Story.

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