Barbara Cochran Delivers Speech to the University of Texas 2023 Connections Conference

Barbara Cochran Delivers Speech to the University of Texas 2023 Connections Conference

April 12, 2023 – Barbara Cochran delivered a speech to the University of Texas 2023 Connections Conference: Global Media in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. The conference was international in scope with participants meeting in person on the UT campus in Austin and joining in virtually. See the full text of the speech below:

“Good afternoon. My name is Barbara Cochran. I’m a longtime journalist in Washington, a professor emerita of the Missouri School of Journalism and now the president of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation.

I’m going to talk this afternoon about the threats facing journalists today and the effort I’m involved in to build a monument in the heart of Washington DC to salute freedom of the press by honoring journalists who have sacrificed their lives while bringing news to the public.

The title of my talk is “Reporting Under Fire: Recognizing the Work of Journalists in the War for Truth,” a subject that couldn’t be more timely. Just in the past two weeks we’ve seen powerful examples of how dangerous the practice of journalism can be for those who are determined to witness, investigate and report from the frontlines of conflict.

Exactly two weeks ago, on March 29, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained by the Russian government and accused of espionage while on a reporting trip to the city of Yekaterinburg, about 800 miles from Moscow. He is being held in the notorious Lefortovo prison where Russia’s Federal Security Service puts prisoners awaiting trial. Russian authorities have not disclosed the specifics of the charges against him.

The Wall Street Journal has vehemently denied the espionage accusation and said Gershkovich was doing his job – reporting on Russia. The Journal has gone to great lengths to keep the story on front pages, including asking its own reporters to post on social media.

What makes the case even more alarming is that Gershkovich is not a neophyte who stumbled into trouble. He is a savvy, knowledgeable reporter who has worked as a journalist in Moscow for about four years. The son of parents who emigrated from Russia to the U.S., he is fluent in the language.

A journalist friend who has known Gershkovich since college wrote:

“He moved to Russia to chase his journalism dream, but also because he believed it was important to capture life on the ground, to help Americans understand Russian culture and politics as intimately as he did. He wanted to write about the disappearing languages of Russia and its indigenous cultures; about Russian landfill closures and environmental degradation; about the arrests of journalists and dissidents who dared to speak out against the regime.”

Now, he is experiencing the same privations as those he has written about.

The U.S. government has rallied to his side, with strong statements of support from President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a rare joint statement from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate. On Monday, the State Department designated him as being “wrongfully detained,” which moves his case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The State Department spokesman said, “Journalism is not a crime. We call for the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr. Gershkovich.”

International condemnation of Russia’s action has also been strong. Italian newspapers published an open letter of appeal to the Russian ambassador to Italy. The president of the World Bank called the arrest a “brazen act” that violates freedom of the press.

Up until Gershkovich’s arrest, journalists thought that Vladimir Putin would only go after Russian reporters serving a Russian audience. But this arrest sends a chilling and deeply disturbing message to other international reporters. Previously, when Russia launched its war on Ukraine, western journalists left the country, but most major news organizations had returned…until now. The New York Times, for example, pulled its correspondent out of Moscow after Gershkovich’s arrest.

Gershkovich has met with his lawyers once and is reportedly cheered by the outpouring of support. But he is largely isolated and, judging by the Britney Griner case, his detention could last for some time.

While this very current case was sparking global outrage, other news organizations were remembering losses from the past.

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. war in Iraq. The invasion began on March 20 and concluded in May. During that time 15 journalists were killed. Proportionally, losses among the journalism corps in those first three months were 10 times greater than losses among the military.

One of those who died was David Bloom, a correspondent for NBC News. David was an embedded correspondent, traveling with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division as it moved deep into Iraq. Advances in technology allowed NBC to outfit a Ford flatbed truck with a satellite uplink that enabled David to report live around the clock as the troops moved toward Baghdad. His vehicle was nicknamed the Bloom-mobile and his reporting was ubiquitous. He became a symbol of the live-action, frontline reporting that correspondents covering this war were delivering.

David sometimes commented about the cramped conditions and physical duress of remaining on the truck in order to broadcast continuously from the scene of the action. But after all, that’s what reporters do, isn’t it? They witness momentous events and convey them to the public. Unbeknownst to David, he was developing a deep vein thrombosis, brought on by the cramped conditions, heat and lack of sleep. The blood clot traveled from his leg to his lungs and caused a pulmonary embolism that cost him his life.

Other journalists who died in the early days of the war in Iraq included Michael Kelly, editor-at-large for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, whose Humvee ran into a canal to avoid hostile fire. It turned over and trapped Michael and his military driver inside under water, where they drowned.

Another was Elizabeth Neuffer, an experienced combat reporter for the Boston Globe, who died in a car crash while returning to Baghdad from a reporting trip to Tikrit.

Twenty years later, reporters are now covering another war and losing their lives. In Ukraine, many of the reporters are citizens of the country that has become a battleground. In addition to overcoming the difficulties of getting news out in a country beset by bombings and power outages, reporters are losing their lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 15 reporters and media workers have died there since Russia invaded last year.

War zones aren’t the only places where journalists risk their lives to report the news. In countries with repressive regimes or unchecked corruption, journalists face harassment, imprisonment, injury and even death. Other than Ukraine, Mexico is considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist these days. Last year, 13 journalists were killed in Mexico and CPJ has documented 9 killings a year for each of the previous six years. Authorities look the other way and criminals continue murdering journalists with impunity.

As for authoritarian rulers who want to stifle any criticism or exposure of corruption, consider the case of Jamal Khasshogi. Khashoggi is the Washington Post columnist who was lured to Turkey to the consulate of his native Saudi Arabia, where he was murdered and dismembered. Although the U.S. government has said the order to kill Kashoggi came from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, he hasn’t been punished. Instead, 11 Saudis were tried with three being acquitted, three given prison sentences and the five lowest level officials being sentenced to death.

Some of you may have seen a film released in 2018 called A Private War. It tells the story of the life of Marie Colvin, a war correspondent for the Sunday Times of London. Already having lost an eye while covering conflict in Sri Lanka, she went to Syria to report what was really going on in a zone that Syrian President Bashar al Assad said was populated only by terrorists and therefore justified his military assault. Colvin reported that, in reality, there were civilians, including children, cowering in fear during the relentless shelling campaign. Just hours after speaking this truth on Britain’s ITV network, Colvin and a photographer were killed in an artillery assault. Several years after Colvin’s death, a U.S. judge ruled that “She was specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country.” The judge added, “The murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide.”

What about here in the United States? Targeted killings are rare, but they do occur. Just last year, an investigative reporter in Las Vegas named Jeff German was stabbed to death outside his home. German, who had reported on wrong-doing and corruption in Las Vegas for more than 40 years, had written some stories about a low-level county official whose employees accused him of bullying and improper behavior. The official had lost his race for re-election in the primary. Five days after German’s killing, police, armed with video and other evidence, arrested that official and charged him with murder. He is now awaiting trial.

Just as it was a local journalist reporting on local issues who was killed in Las Vegas, the deadliest assault on journalists in American history took place in the local newsroom of one of the oldest newspapers in America.

On June 28, 2018, a man who was angered about a story about himself from seven years earlier entered the office of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. He was armed with a shotgun.  After shooting through the door, he fired around the newsroom, killing five people and wounding two others. His complaint was about a factual story that reported on a legal action taken against him. He had sued the newspaper for defamation and lost and then wrote threatening messages to the paper.

Rob Hiassen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Wendi Winters and Rebecca Smith were the editors, writers and ad sales rep who lost their lives. None of them had anything to do with the original, truthful story that so enraged the gunman. But they were victims nonetheless, attacked in a local newsroom that had served the citizens of Annapolis since the 19th Century.

One year later, on June 28, 2019, former Congressman David Dreier, announced the formation of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. Dreier was then the chairman of Tribune Publishing, which owned the Capital Gazette, and he feared that the Capital Gazette staffers would be forgotten. Using his connections with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, he got legislation introduced to build the first public monument in Washington to honor journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty. That legislation was passed unanimously by both houses and signed into law in December 2020.

The Fallen Journalists Memorial Act establishes a twofold purpose for the memorial. It is intended to honor journalists who sacrificed their lives. At the same time, it will be a monument to America’s commitment to freedom of the press.

That is a very important point. I’ve spoken for most of this talk about individual journalists who paid the ultimate price for their work. They were witnesses on the frontlines of war or they confronted the powerful over repression, corruption and inequities.

But increasingly, we are seeing journalists attacked, just as the Capital Gazette journalists were, not for their specific work, but because hostility toward journalists has been inflamed and weaponized. For example, local television news crews are regularly harassed and threatened when out on assignment. A TV reporter in Orlando, just 24 years old and working in his first job, was killed last month and his photographer was critically injured while reporting from the scene of an earlier shooting.

Calling journalists “enemies of the people” dehumanizes them and emboldens some to make physical attacks. But the online brutality is almost as bad. Many journalists – and especially women and journalists of color – endure threats and harassment that are simply reprehensible.

That is why we believe the memorial must have three goals. Yes, it will commemorate those who sacrificed their lives. But it must also educate the public and inspire current and future generations to value freedom of the press.

By locating the Memorial by the National Mall, which is the most visited national park in the U.S., we will expose millions of visitors to the concept of the free press as a pillar of democracy. They will learn that the Founding Fathers valued freedom of the press so highly that they enshrined its place in the U.S. Constitution by naming it in the First Amendment. The memorial will serve as a beacon for international visitors who may be inspired to support and fight for an independent press when they return home. For young people, it will underscore lessons in history and civics and perhaps prompt some to become journalists themselves.

Washington in a city of monuments and memorials. They honor historic individuals or significant events.

Surprisingly, there are no memorials in our nation’s capital to fallen journalists or monuments to the First Amendment, the right to free speech and to a free press.  Sometime in what I hope is the near future, that will no longer be true.

I hope that a memorial honoring journalists and celebrating freedom of the press will stand amidst the seats of government power as a reminder of the watchdog role journalists play that is so essential to self-governance. I also hope that many of you will visit that memorial and be inspired and thankful for the sacrifices made by journalists in the name of a free press.

Thank you very much. I’m now happy to take questions.”