Editor’s Note: Nima Elbagir is a senior international correspondent for CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In Yemen’s Houthi-controlled north, four journalists — Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram Al-Walidi, Hareth Humaid, and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri — are on death row. They are charged with treason and conspiring with “the enemy” — the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.
In Aden, the internationally recognized government’s capital in Yemen’s south, photojournalist Nabeel Al-Qitee’e was gunned down in front of his home on June 2.
According to the United Nations, across Yemen there have been more than a dozen more deaths or threats of physical violence against journalists, 24 seizures of media organizations, 26 closures of TV channels and newspaper companies, and 27 attacks on media organizations and journalists’ homes. All, including the death sentences imposed on the four journalists, are in violation of international human rights law.
The world watched transfixed in November as many of the American journalists who had been belittled and threatened by President Donald Trump and his supporters reported on the US election, explaining, fact checking, and ultimately playing their role as an institution of democracy.
This year, for the fifth consecutive year, at least 250 journalists were imprisoned around the globe, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The CPJ blamed it on a “lack of global leadership on democratic values — particularly from the United States, where President Donald Trump has inexhaustibly denigrated the press”.
There is a sense though that this abnormal moment in time — where the bullying and threatening of journalists on US soil is encouraged and the threatening and killing of them abroad is ignored — is coming to an end.
I hope that’s true but I don’t think it is. The reality is autocrats around the world are going to continue to target the free press until there are consequences for doing so.
In Yemen, we have had our visa application in limbo for four months. Since September, you can count on one hand the number of visas that have been issued to news outlets. Foreign journalists have not been granted access by the Saudi-backed official government in months, and while they block foreign press, local journalists are being targeted with impunity.
When we reached out for comment, the Yemeni government did not respond to our requests and a Saudi coalition spokesperson told us they were “not involved in the application.”
Why does any of this matter? Because what you — the viewer, the reader, the voter — think matters. When you care, leaders act and if we can’t tell you what’s going on, then you can’t care.
In Yemen, thousands of people could already be in famine and we wouldn’t know.
In Ethiopia, thousands of ethnic Tigray fled their homes with tales of horror, into which we must inject a note of caution — “CNN cannot independently verify.” Because we can’t. Because even though some aspects of the communications blockade on the region have been lifted, as Reuters news agency reports, the Ethiopian government has yet to grant full and unrestricted access to foreign journalists and at least six journalists have been detained since the conflict began.
In Nigeria, after anti-police brutality #ENDSARS protests began, journalists were gagged by new broadcasting regulations. The press was barred from reporting on issues that “embarrass individuals, organizations, government, or cause disaffection,” according to guidelines issued by the country’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission.
CNN has been threatened with unspecified “sanctions” for our reporting on the brutal suppression of an #ENDSARS protest at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, and it is still unclear how that will affect our future reporting on the country.
Where we are blocked from doing our job, people suffer. If you don’t care about them, then care about you.
You should care whether the next US administration supports and reinforces journalism at home and abroad. Whether it uses its outsize presence on the world stage to call out those who block our access, intimidate and detain us.
President-elect Joe Biden already signaled a shift after his White House communications team was announced, saying “Communicating directly and truthfully to the American people is one of the most important duties of a President, and this team will be entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of connecting the American people to the White House.”
But it isn’t enough to promise to uphold journalistic freedoms at home. We need a commitment that the new administration will support them abroad.
As the world continues to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, it shouldn’t be ignored that the virus is believed to have initially spread in China, a country that closely controls the press, at a time when the sitting US President was telling the nation not to believe the press.
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How differently would the world have responded if journalists had been able to report the true extent of the virus in China sooner? We’ll never know.
That is what we risk when journalists are barred from doing their jobs, we risk secrets making us all sick. We are not above criticism and you don’t have to like us, but just let us do our jobs.