Journalists are easy targets. They are unprotected, unarmed, and vulnerable to any tyrant who can hijack them to grab the world’s attention.
In late January, Iran detained American reporter Roxana Saberi, accused her of spying, and sentenced her to eight years in prison. The conviction was appealed in a higher court, which reduced the charges from espionage to “possessing classified information,” and dropped the punishment to a two-year suspended sentence. Saberi returned to the U.S. after being released from Tehran’s Evin prison on May 11, 2009.
In March, North Korea arrested two American journalists, Laura Ling (sister of journalist Lisa Ling) and Euna Lee, at the Chinese-Korean border. Accused of engaging in “hostile acts,” they were both sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, with no chance for appeal.
The hostility against reporters is as old as printing, and Ben Franklin was well-acquainted with it.
Franklin didn’t call himself a journalist. He was a printer. He owned a press and he printed a newspaper. Over time, though, he realized there was no such thing as simply being a printer. He repeatedly faced criticism for what he published and was continually involved in defending or apologizing for material that appeared in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
In 1731, Franklin wrote a calm, thoughtful defense of journalist/printers, which might be of interest in China, Barbados, Kenya, Burma, India, and other nations that have arrested journalists in the past year.
“Being frequently censured and condemned by different Persons for printing Things which they say ought not to be printed, I have sometimes thought it might be necessary to make a standing Apology for my self, and publish it once a Year, to be read upon all Occasions of that Nature…
I request all who are angry with me on the Account of printing things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars.
1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb: So many Men so many Minds.
2. That the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men’s Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others.
3. That hence arises the peculiar Unhappiness of that Business, which other Callings are no way liable to; they who follow Printing being scarce able to do any thing in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give Offence to some, and perhaps to many; whereas the Smith, the Shoemaker, the Carpenter, or the Man of any other Trade, may work indifferently for People of all Persuasions, without offending any of them: and the merchant may buy and sell with Jews, Turks, Heretics, and Infidels of all sorts, and get money by every one of them, without giving Offence to the most orthodox, of any sort; or suffering the least Censure or Ill-will on the Account from any Man whatever.
4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleased with every thing that is printed, as to think that nobody ought to be pleased but themselves.
5. Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they cheerfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.”