We ought to pray for journalists. It’s a dangerous time for them worldwide.
Early in 2018, Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post reported that 2017 was the most dangerous year for journalists on record. Forty-eight were killed and 262 imprisoned. Rezaian, former bureau chief in Tehran, was unjustly imprisoned himself for 544 days, ending in 2016, so he knows well the dangers and costs of reporting. Here is the big picture:
The threats are extensive: extrajudicial executions, hostage taking by both government and nonstate actors, state-sanctioned surveillance, prosecution under obscure laws, public smear campaigns and more. Reporters around the world have been accused of terrorism, targeted as enemies of the people, and subjected to opaque and sometimes-secret legal proceedings.
Reporters Without Borders records even higher numbers of deaths and imprisonments for 2018, and the year is far from over. So far, 51 journalists have been killed, along with ten citizen journalists and three media assistants; 164 journalists have been imprisoned, along with 142 citizen journalists and 19 media assistants. Lest we imagine that such attacks are limited to places like Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, and Bangladesh, we should also remember the five journalists who were killed at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland, right here in the United States.
The grisly reality of threats and harassment directed toward journalists in the United States was brought home to me recently in a column by Bret Stephens of the New York Times, who detailed a threat he received in response to another column he’d written. The voicemail in which it came could not be traced:
“Hey Bret, what do you think? Do you think the pen is mightier than the sword, or that the AR is mightier than the pen?”
He continues: “I don’t carry an AR but once we start shooting you f—ers you aren’t going to pop off like you do now. You’re worthless, the press is the enemy of the United States people and, you know what, rather than me shoot you, I hope a Mexican and, even better yet, I hope a n— shoots you in the head, dead.”
He repeats the racial slur 10 times in a staccato rhythm, concluding with the send-off: “Have a nice day, n— lover.”
In London, there’s a church called St. Bride’s (that’s short for St. Brigid of Ireland, but everybody calls it St. Bride’s) on Fleet Street, the home of England’s press. It is known as “the journalist’s church.”
When I visited there this past spring, I was both impressed and touched by what they had done to memorialize and pray for reporters who have lost their lives in the course of bringing us the news. A wall plaque is inscribed with names of those held hostage in Lebanon 1985-91, and those who died while covering the war in Iraq in 2003. “At this altar day by day we pray for all those who face danger, persecution, and death in bringing the truth in word and pictures to a troubled world.”
On the altar itself the names and biographies of those who died are displayed, each in a transparent frame, along with their pictures. The altar is inscribed with the words of John 1. This is clearly a memorial shrine and prayer chapel, rather than a place to celebrate Eucharist, but it adjoins the main Eucharistic space, and, as you can see, there is a tabernacle in the background.
As you’ll recall, Fleet Street, although known for printing and publishing since the sixteenth century, is not a high-toned place. It has been the home of tabloid journalism, screaming headlines, and muckraking as well as news reporting of a better sort. Yet the church does not discriminate. It honors the dignity of those who have died in pursuit of their calling and lifts up the best aspirations of the press, passing over the worst impulses of the journalistic soul and industry. By doing so, it affirms and reinforces an ideal that is often in danger of being forgotten in our contemporary world of “truthiness” and “fake news”: Truth is precious. It requires much of us. You can get killed for reporting it.
In the absence of a shrine or chapel, it’s still possible to pray for journalists: in the prayers of the faithful and at other times. But I rarely see this done. The Vatican celebrates “World Communications Day” in January, but I wonder whether this event makes a blip on our screens.
Marquette University has posted a prayer for journalists by St. Francis de Sales, who is their patron saint and the patron saint of writers:
Strengthen and direct, we pray,
the will of all whose work it is to write what many read,
and to speak where many listen.
May we be bold to confront evil and injustice:
understanding and compassionate of human weakness;
rejecting alike the half-truth which deceives,
and the slanted word which corrupts.
May the power which is ours, for good or ill,
always be used with honesty and courage,
with respect and integrity,
so that when all here has been written, said and done,
we may, unashamed, meet Thee face to face.
I like this prayer a lot, yet it is focused on the individual’s moral life and vocation. I think we also need to pray in ways that recall the community’s investment in their work, and pray that journalists will be protected in the face of persecution and threats around the world.