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Here’s why we need a free press to be a free people | Column
In our country, in our state, in our community, will we defend free speech? Will we challenge the powerful? Will we uphold the vigor of dissent and debate?
 
On Feb. 2, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shows the heart symbol from the courtroom cage during a hearing at the City Court in Moscow. In giving him the European Union's top human rights honor, the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament praised his "immense personal bravery." The activist was poisoned with a nerve agent last year and promptly arrested upon his return to Moscow from treatment in Germany and later imprisoned. (Moscow City Court via AP, File)
On Feb. 2, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shows the heart symbol from the courtroom cage during a hearing at the City Court in Moscow. In giving him the European Union's top human rights honor, the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament praised his "immense personal bravery." The activist was poisoned with a nerve agent last year and promptly arrested upon his return to Moscow from treatment in Germany and later imprisoned. (Moscow City Court via AP, File) [ AP ]
Published April 30, 2023

Editor’s note: The United Nations has declared that Wednesday is World Press Freedom Day, recognizing that freedom of expression is a prerequisite for other human rights. With that in mind, we are publishing recent remarks that former Tampa Bay Times chairperson and CEO Paul Tash made to the St. Petersburg Bar Foundation.

Although I have a law degree, I spent my career as a journalist rather than a lawyer, some of it covering what you do. And my four decades in news and publishing gave me a keen understanding of the connection between freedom of the press and the rule of law. So at the outset of my remarks, let me offer my admiration and gratitude to you, as stewards of a system that provides the space for my profession to operate. We can’t do our job unless you do yours.

Paul Tash
Paul Tash [ WITTMAN, ZACK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Today’s topic is “candor,” and much of what I know about that subject comes from being on the receiving end of it. For 40 years, I have been married to a woman who considers “candor” her highest obligation. And one of my oldest and dearest friends would sometimes start a frank conversation with this phrase: “I owe you my candor.” What followed was rarely a bouquet of praise.

Over the course of my career, I’ve also witnessed some wonderful lessons in candor. On the Fourth of July in 1976, I was a kid reporter at the then-St. Petersburg Times. And over the Bicentennial weekend, Gene Patterson — the top editor and executive at the newspaper — celebrated a little too much. Driving along First Avenue South, Gene sideswiped another car, and police booked Gene into the city jail on charges of drunken driving.

I exaggerate only a smidgen to say that Gene used his one phone call to call the city desk at the Times. But immediately after bailing out, Gene got the night police reporter on the phone and started dictating a story about his own arrest. Gene fessed up to the charges in his own newspaper, and over the objections from his other editors, he ordered the story onto the front page. The wisdom of that decision lasted long after the embarrassment faded. Gene kept a copy of that newspaper in his desk drawer. Whenever someone from the community would ask that the Times go easy on a sensitive or embarrassing story, Gene would slide that edition across his desk and ask, do you still want to make that request?

Gene’s example at the outset of my career has stuck with me over the decades. In a vulnerable moment, Gene did not flinch or turn away from the hard decision. That was an easy call for a guy who had been a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge, who had been an editor in Atlanta, crusading for civil rights even when racists threatened his family and killed his dog. A little story about a DUI? Why, that was no test at all for Gene Patterson’s courage.

That’s what candor often requires: courage. You have to go out on a limb, to say or do something important, even though that expression might make you vulnerable or provoke an adverse reaction.

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My career at your local newspaper took me to six continents and put me in position to witness examples of candor and courage far more powerful than that slightly humorous story from 1976.

This is, after all, still a mostly free country, where the price of candor is likely to be comparatively cheap. The rule of law and the First Amendment provide fairly generous boundaries for the exercise of free expression. Not so in much of the world.

The problem comes in two extremes. Some governments are so strong that they can crush any views they find unwelcome. Other governments are so weak that they are unable — or unwilling — to defend even the most basic rights of life and safety for those who would dare to challenge the powerful. And yet, there are brave souls who risk their liberty, their health, even their lives to say what they believe must be said, who have the courage of candor. Humbled by their examples, I would ask myself this same question:

Would I be so brave?

In 1998, I was in a delegation of American newspaper editors who visited Cuba. Twenty-five years ago, that was a big deal. Travel restrictions meant we had to fly through the Bahamas, and the Cuban press covered our arrival in Havana as big news. The communist authorities kept us tightly scheduled and under close watch, and on our last day in Cuba, we had a four-hour meeting with Fidel Castro. It was a fascinating finish to our visit.

But before that session with Castro, we met with Cuban dissidents who were putting themselves at great risk just by coming to our hotel. They knew we were under close watch, and consequently they would also come under the gaze of the authorities. Some of them already had served time in prison, and they were taking their chances on a return trip just by meeting with us. They would not be silenced. And I asked myself:

Would I be so brave?

Some regimes, like Cuba, stifle expression through brute power. But it can be equally dangerous — maybe more so — in a place where government is too weak or corrupt to protect those who speak out. One of those places is our neighbor to the south. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Latin America is the deadliest region in the world to practice journalism. Just last year, 30 journalists were murdered, and 13 of them died in Mexico — the most ever in a single year.

One of those was Armando Linares, a founder and editor of a news website in Central Mexico. Linares and his news outlet had been reporting on alleged corruption, embezzlement and extortion by public officials. Early last year, a 55-year-old camera operator for the same news service was shot to death. Linares said he also had received death threats. Six weeks later, while he was in his own home, LInares was shot at least eight times by unknown assailants. And I ask myself:

Would I be so brave?

If Latin America is the place where you are most likely to be killed, Asia takes the lead for throwing journalists in jail. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 119 journalists were arrested on the continent last year. China has the the most journalists behind bars, but Vietnam imprisoned 23 journalists, just for doing their jobs.

One of those is Pham Doan Trang, who reports on human rights abuses in Vietnam. After a one-day trial, the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced her to nine years in prison for breaking a law that forbids “making, storing, distributing or spreading” news or information against the state. The presiding judge gave one day’s notice of Trang’s trial date and repeatedly interrupted Trang during her trial, saying her “behavior was dangerous for society” and that she should be “severely punished” for acting against the state.

In previous years, Trang had gone into hiding and then exile. Just days before her arrest, she circulated online a letter entitled, “Just in Case I am Imprisoned.”

And I ask myself: Would I be so brave?

Over the last year, America has stood in admiration — even awe — as Ukraine, its people and its president have shown tremendous courage in repelling the Russian invasion. But when it comes to standing up against the ruthless, cynical, evil brutality of Vladimir Putin, I put Alexei Navalny at the top of my list.

Remember him? Navalny is a lawyer and opposition leader in Russia, and Putin tried to poison him. (By the way, there is an outstanding documentary on Navalny that won the Oscar. I think it’s the only Oscar winner that I have seen so far this year, and I recommend it highly.) Navalny nearly died in the assassination attempt. He was evacuated for medical care to Germany. And he spent weeks in a hospital there. He recovered and was released from the hospital. And then, he went back to Russia. He. Went. Back. When his plane landed in Moscow, Navalny was arrested, and he is now serving a nine-year sentence in a high-security prison.

When the documentary won the Oscar, Navalny’s wife and children went to the stage. “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth,” said his wife Yulia. “My husband is in prison just for defending democracy. Alexei, I am dreaming of the day you will be free, and our country will be free.”

And I ask myself: Would I be so brave?

As I said at the outset of these remarks, this is still a mostly free country. The rule of law is generally strong. Individuals can still turn to the courts for protection of their fundamental liberties. You may suffer on social media, or in the workplace or in the court of public opinion, but you will almost certainly not lose your life or your liberty for speaking up, or speaking out, for having the courage of your candor. Here, our boundaries of free expression and public discourse are still relatively generous.

And yet, you need not look far for signs of trouble. At some of our great universities, including the one where Navalny’s own daughter is a student, speakers are shouted down for holding views that the crowd decides are not acceptable. In Florida, while our governor pushes to expand Second Amendment rights, he also keeps pushing to restrict the freedoms under the First Amendment. Meanwhile, the former president of the United States may be leading the Republican field for another turn in office. When he had the job last time, he described people in my line of work as “enemies of the people,” a phrase that would be familiar to Stalin, Mao and Goebbels.

As I look around the world, I see many places where the space for free expression has collapsed, and yet heroes have the courage of their candor. With their voices, they push against corruption. They push against brutality and tyranny.

In our country, in our state, in our community, I wonder: Will we defend free speech? Will we challenge the powerful? Will we uphold the vigor of dissent and debate? The alternative is that we remain quiet and compliant as the vise continues to close around us. Will we wait until candor requires the extraordinary courage of those Cuban dissidents, or Armando Linares, or Pham Doan Trang, or Alexei Navalny?

And I ask myself: Will we be so brave?

Paul Tash retired as chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times on June 30, 2022. He remains chairperson of the Poynter Institute trustees.