By Lynette Lamb
May 21, 2019

In Defense of Press Freedom

The press has a crucial role to play in keeping people and governments accountable, but lately, journalists around the world have been maligned and silenced–even violently attacked. This spring, with guidance from one of the world’s top advocates for press freedom, Beloit students had the chance to dig deeply into this timely issue.

It’s not an easy time to be a reporter. At least 54 journalists were killed around the world in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with 34 of those singled out for murder. Regimes around the world are shutting down press freedom, and even in our own country—long known for its dedication to the First Amendment—many politicians have all but declared war on the press.

Probably the most famous recent case of journalist murder was the brazen killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul last October by Saudi agents. Khashoggi had been openly and regularly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Although the threats to U.S. journalists are less frightening and less frequent than those to journalists abroad, the violence can indeed strike close to home. Since the late 1970s, two Beloit College alumni have been killed as they went about their work as reporters.

Given the growing threats to press freedom, the Beloit College committee that annually chooses a Weissberg Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice—the scholar-in-residence that is part of the larger Weissberg Program at Beloit—resolved this year to bring an expert in press freedom to campus.

The Weissberg Program, founded in 1999 by Beloit parent Marvin Weissberg and his daughter Nina Weissberg’84, and sustained by the Weissberg Foundation, has for 20 years used the lens of human rights and social justice to educate and empower Beloit students. Besides the one-week spring Weissberg residency, the program includes a fall forum in human rights, grants and scholarships for students, and opportunities for faculty.

Joel Simon, longtime executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a regular commentator on press freedom, and a former freelance journalist in Latin America, was chosen as this year’s chair. In his 13-year tenure at CPJ, he has led the organization in launching the Global Campaign Against Impunity, establishing a journalist assistance program, and spearheading its defense of press freedom in the digital space by creating a dedicated technology program.

The stakes, says Simon, have never been higher. “I firmly believe that information is power in this age,” he says. “Whether you’re a college student in the United States or an isolated rural farmer in China, in order to have control and opportunity, you need information. And I believe that the people who perform the role of gathering and disseminating that information are threatened as never before.”

Having a press freedom expert on the Beloit campus this year was especially timely, says Associate Professor of Political Science Rachel Ellett, who designed her spring seminar around Simon’s visit. “This is a really interesting time to be thinking about freedom of speech,” she says. “Our students are in college at a time when it’s difficult to know what to trust in what they’re reading. Having someone on campus who is a major thinker in the area of press freedom and who is working through, in real time, how this new generation of journalists can be protected—that’s exciting.”

Although Ellett’s class, called “Weissberg Seminar on Freedom of Expression in the Media,” was the course most closely aligned with Simon’s visit, two other Beloit classes also took advantage of his week on campus. In his course called Fake News, Conspiracy Theories, Social Media: The Changing Media Landscape, Assistant Professor of Political Science Phil Chen included a section on emerging threats to media independence and declining trust in the U.S. media. In her Human Rights Seminar, Manger Professor of International Relations Beth Dougherty featured a section on press freedom.

Dougherty was among the faculty members who chose Simon to be this year’s Weissberg Chair. “Given the current political climate, with the press being named an enemy of the people, we decided press freedom was a perfect topic and had good scope, as it relates both domestically and internationally,” she says. Also, she says, the Weissberg committee always seeks a speaker whose topic will appeal to alumni, friends, and others beyond the confines of campus.

That inclusive quality of Weissberg Week really spoke to Jesse Wiles’19, a sociology major from Wooster, Ohio. “Weissberg Week brings together a broader group of people both from within and outside the campus community,” he says. “It’s a great way to gain new perspectives and have conversations with a wider variety of people.”

Then there are the many other advantages Weissberg Weeks bring to Beloit’s students. Simon visited multiple classes, gave a keynote address, took part in a panel discussion, and attended informal lunches and meetings with dozens of additional students. “My class with Professor Ellett allowed me to have discussions with Mr. Simon that would not have otherwise been possible,” says Coco Charles’20, a computer science major from New Haven, Conn. “In addition to hearing about and discussing his knowledge of the country that I was studying—the U.S.—I gained his in-depth knowledge of all the countries my classmates had researched.”

When interviewed shortly before his residency, Simon said that he was greatly looking forward to taking part in such an in-depth campus experience. “I meet with college students regularly, but it’s usually very one-way: I talk to them,” he says. “I’ve never done anything this intensive before, and I’m really excited about it. This experience will be an immersion, and more of a conversation.”

Simon also considered his residency as an excellent opportunity to better understand how the next generation views issues of press freedom. “I look forward to the opportunity to engage, understand, learn, and converse with this new generation,” he says.

Having the opportunity to meet people like Simon, top practitioners in the field of human rights, is “one of the best things about Weissberg Week,” says Chen. “Students can ask questions and talk about what it really means to work in this area, on the ground, and that’s a very valuable experience for them.”

That was certainly the case for Charles. “Studying computer science, I am especially interested in how technology is used as a means of attack and suppression for free speech,” she says. “I’m not sure what work path I will ultimately take, but as technology is increasingly used as a method of suppressing free speech, I will inevitably be involved with this issue.”

The topic hit particularly close to home for Fahim Ahmad’21, an economics and international relations major from Afghanistan. “I am from a war-ridden country where journalists have to work in dangerous conditions to inform the people,” he says. “They receive constant threats from all sides involved in the conflict. The [Ellett seminar] course, coupled with the Weissberg Week experiences, have expanded my understanding of the journalistic world, and will help me if I ever pursue a career in journalism.”

In both Dougherty and Ellett’s courses, students chose a single country to study, exploring its trends in freedom of expression by doing research through various think tanks and non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs. Besides Simon’s own excellent organization—which issues regular press freedom status reports on many countries—students sought information from Reporters Without Borders, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and others.

Ahmad, for instance, researched Turkey, and said Simon was very helpful in explaining the current situation in that country. “I learned that journalists play a significant role in any society, as part of their role is to inform people and to make governments, including repressive and authoritarian regimes, accountable for their actions and policies,” he says. “I learned that information is power, and that autocratic leaders around the world are trying to control information and keep citizens in the dark.”

Other students prepared country reports on Russia, Mexico, South Africa, and Ukraine, among other nations.

The global aspects of the class were enhanced by both the presence of international student class members from Russia, India, and Afghanistan and by the inclusion—through a half-unit companion course—of eight students studying abroad in countries such as China and Scotland.

Although the logistical challenges of involving distant students are undeniable, what with technological glitches and time zone differences, the experiment went well overall, says Ellett. “The idea was to find ways to connect students studying abroad to those on campus and to extend their learning.”

The Weissberg Week Google Hangout session, which included Simon, Ellett, and her Beloit students along with the eight studying abroad, was a resounding success, she reports. “Joel had some great insights on the countries the students were studying,” she says. For example, Clare Eigenbrode’20, an environmental studies major from Moscow, Idaho, called in from Quito, Ecuador, to discuss recent efforts in that country to reform an oppressive communication law. Simon had lobbied for that reform while on a CPJ mission the previous year. “Talk about great firsthand accounts and experiences,” says Ellett. Simon also connected both Eigenbrode and a student studying in Hong Kong with his associates working on the ground in those regions.

All the students came away with a profound sense of the importance of press freedom worldwide, a lesson they are unlikely to forget. “I learned that it’s integral to the world’s well-being to have protections in place regarding journalists and freedom of information,” says sociology student Wiles. “I think Simon and the CPJ are doing one of the most important jobs of the 21st century in protecting journalists and raising awareness about them and the lengths they go to get their message out.”

Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer and the parent of a 2019 Beloit graduate.

 

Beloit’s Fallen Journalists

Don Bolles’50Don Bolles’50 Credit: Beloit College ArchivesThe very real threat of physical harm coming to journalists has affected Beloit’s own alumni community. Both Don Bolles’50 and Luke Somers’08 were killed because of their work in the news media.

Bolles was an investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic whose murder in a 1976 car bombing has been linked to his coverage of the Mafia. The bomb was planted in his vehicle while it was parked in the newspaper’s employee lot. Shortly before his death, he had asked to be taken off the investigative beat.

The Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism located in Washington, D.C., features Bolles’ 1976 Datsun 710 as the centerpiece of a gallery devoted to the slain journalist.

“The death of Don Bolles was a seminal moment in U.S. journalism,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It made U.S journalists and the public realize that they, too, can face violent threats.”

Luke Somers’08Luke Somers’08Luke Somers’08, who studied creative writing at Beloit, was working as a freelance photojournalist and photographer in Yemen when he was kidnapped and ultimately murdered by al-Qaeda in 2014.

The U.S. government, which makes a practice of refusing to pay bribes for its kidnapped citizens, launched two failed rescue attempts to free Somers. By the time he was mortally wounded in the second rescue attempt, Somers had been held hostage for more than a year.

The Committee to Protect Journalists was among the many organizations and people who had appealed to save Somers’ life.

In his recently published book, We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom, Simon writes about the politics of paying ransom to free journalists who are held as hostages. His book mentions the case of Luke Somers.

 

Weissberg Topics

The Weissberg Program in Human Rights and Social Justice has been a fixture at Beloit College for 20 years. The chair holder serves as a centerpiece of year-round programming and resources, and features a who’s who of human rights leaders on a global stage. It all began in 1999, with the first chair holder: prominent Palestinian educator and legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

Bringing human rights experts to campus “demystifies prominent and politically engaged people for our students, helping them see how their lives and careers advanced,” says Rachel Ellett, a political science professor who taught a spring seminar framed around the 2019 topic of free speech. “Every one of these individuals has a commitment to public service and is pursuing a more just world.”

The following list features the past decade of Weissberg chairs, along with the topics they explored. For a complete list, see Beloit’s website at https://www.beloit.edu/residencies/weissberg-chair/.


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