Columns

'Reporting on the Truth Is Not a Crime'

At the opening of the Washington Post’s new headquarters, Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the dangers of foreign journalism, declaring that a nation without a free press has “nothing to brag about” and cannot fulfill its full potential.

“Last year alone, 71 media workers were killed while on duty and almost 200 were thrown into jail. The most dangerous country was Syria, where the incomparable [NYT correspondent] Anthony Shadid died in 2012 and Shadid, as everybody here knows, made his name here at the Post, worked in Boston too,” Kerry said at the event in Washington.

Kerry described Shadid as a reporter with a “rare gift for uncovering everyday stories” that confirm, clarify, warn against, or utterly defy conventional assumptions about the direction and meaning of events.

“That’s the best of journalism, and while pursuing these essential stories he was shot and wounded in the West Bank, kidnapped and beaten in Libya, stalked in Lebanon, all before he even secretly entered into Syria to report on the civil war,” he said.

Comparing today to the Vietnam War era, the former Massachusetts senator said he used to occasionally read about the death of a journalist.

“Almost always the reason was essentially an accident – someone caught in a crossfire, perhaps stepping on a landmine. I think what distinguished it is it was essentially anonymous – that is not true today. Journalists then were rarely hunted. Today they are,” Kerry said.

“In our era, roughly two-thirds of the reporters who die violently are killed not in spite of their profession but because of it and they are attacked for what they have written, silenced for what they have witnessed, or kidnapped for the leverage that their capture might provide. And in most cases, the perpetrators are never caught,” he added.

Kerry said the independent media, including reporters, broadcasters, photographers, bloggers and cartoonists, are under constant physical or political pressure today.

“Here we are well into the 21st century and yet only about one person in six lives in a country where the press can truly be described as free. So it is up to us, up to you, up to the defenders of liberty to close ranks and this begins with the recognition that no government, whatever its pretensions and whatever its accomplishments, can fairly call itself great if its citizens are not allowed to say what they believe or are denied the right to learn about events and decisions that affect their lives,” he said.

“So let me underscore: A country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about, nothing to teach, and no way to fulfill its potential.”

The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee urged the public to send a message to those who try to intimidate reporters: “Reporting on the truth is not a crime.”

Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter helped captive in Iran, thanked Kerry and the Post for helping him come back to the U.S. Rezaian was freed after 544 days in prison.

“For much of the 18 months I was in prison, my Iranian interrogators told me that the Washington Post did not exist, that no one knew of my plight, and that the United States government would not lift a finger for my release,” he said at the grand opening. “Today I’m here in this room with the very people who helped prove the Iranians wrong.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, said it would have been easy during the Iran nuclear negotiations for Kerry to think of Jason as just a “little inconvenience” but that “never happened.”

“I think the secretary played his hand very well there and it was a very difficult line to walk,” he said.

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan praised the Washington Post’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing media landscape and news cycle.

“Heck, they even found a way to adapt to the unfathomable reality of a Republican governor in Maryland, which was a shock, I think, to some folks,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told the crowd to give Hogan a round of applause for holding a tough job while beating cancer at the same time. He congratulated the Washington Post’s leadership for the news outlet’s digital focus.

“Let’s be honest, Jeff [Bezos], you are a smart businessman, I mean, what kind of business model – you take yesterday’s news, you put it on a piece of paper and you throw it at someone’s front door, like, that’s a sustainable business model? You’ve got to me kidding me – so I congratulate the Washington Post for their change and moving ahead in the digital world,” he said. “Think about it – that’s a winning model?”