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 Preface to Attacks on the Press in 1997
by Gene Roberts

It is difficult to read this volume without feeling despair that so many journalists could have died, languished in jail, or have been brutalized in a single year. But before you let the despair burrow too deeply, remember that journalists can put a stop to many, arguably most, of the murders and assassinations and atrocities.

How? By doing our jobs. By regarding the murder and assassination and brutalization of journalists as major news stories and covering them thoroughly and prominently. By launching investigations into the murders of reporters and editors, and publishing the findings. And by completing the work of reporters who were killed while uncovering a story.

When journalists are murdered or brutalized, it is almost always by some government, some organization, some criminal cartel, some individual wanting to prevent the flow of embarrassing or incriminating information to the public. If the assassins learned that when they killed journalists the inevitable result was that they got more coverage, rather than less, the killings would subside.

In the United States in 1976, Don Bolles, an investigative reporter in the midst of an investigation for The Arizona Republic, was fatally injured by a car bomb in downtown Phoenix. Thirty-eight journalists from 28 newspapers and television stations formed a team to complete Bolles' investigation. The result was a series that ran in newspapers such as the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and Newsday on Long Island. The Associated Press moved stories developed from the series to the vast majority of U.S. newspapers. The coverage was broad enough and deep enough to make any would-be assassin think twice about violence against journalists anywhere in the United States.

The killing of journalists has halted the flow of any semblance of honest journalism in Tajikistan and in most of Algeria. And terrorism threatens the flow of information in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is urgently essential for journalists whose colleagues are killed to cover the deaths and to pick up the story, even if the dead journalist is a competitor. Not to react is to risk extinction of tell-it-as-it-is journalism in many nations of the world and its most populous continents: Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe.

Is it discriminatory and unfair to cover the murder of a journalist more thoroughly than the murder of the average person? No. The state of the press in any nation is a litmus test of how free the nation's people are. If press freedom is missing, whether by government suppression or by the intimidation of terrorists and assassins, so, inevitably, will be freedom of speech, and true economic opportunity, and, often, freedom of religion. And the murder of a journalist is important news because it is an attack on freedom of expression and the flow of information to the public. When freedom of the press and of speech are absent, people cannot settle issues through open discussion. Then, war and uprisings or lives of fear almost certainly will be the result.

Freedom of expression, which very much depends upon press freedom, is not a guarantee of world peace. But it is a vital first step. Our planet is becoming more complex and more problem-ridden with each passing year.  But the problems cannot be solved in the next century, or ever, if the people of all nations cannot be involved in the discussion. Thus, when there is an absence of press freedom in any nation, it should become the concern of all nations. And if journalists and peace-seekers do not support, cover, and constantly struggle for the cause of press freedom across national boundaries, then who will?


Gene Roberts is CPJ's chairman. He also chairs the International Press Institute. Currently, he is professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. From 1994 until September 1997, he was managing editor of The New York Times. Between 1965 and 1972, Roberts worked for the Times as chief Southern and civil rights correspondent, chief war correspondent in South Vietnam, and national editor. From 1972-90, he was executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. During his tenure there, the Inquirer's staff won 17 Pulitzer Prizes. Roberts himself is the recipient of numerous awards, including The National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award, presented to him in 1993 for lifetime achievement in journalism. He received a B.A. degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina in 1954.