A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, warned on Tuesday that “when the free press erodes, democratic erosion almost always follows,” delivering a call to protect journalists as fatal attacks on reporters have increased — especially in the war in Ukraine.
In remarks at a United Nations event honoring the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, he urged world leaders to protect independent journalism, whether by securing legal protections in their own countries or by punishing attacks on journalists elsewhere.
Journalists worldwide are facing increasing levels of violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group, reported that at least 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, most during the war in Ukraine or in Latin America. Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the killings of 14 journalists and media workers have been confirmed there, the committee said.
A record number of journalists have been imprisoned, including the Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who had previously worked at The New York Times. Mr. Sulzberger said he was in Russian custody “for sham charges and should be released.”
Mr. Sulzberger said the vision of journalists playing a foundational role in supporting human rights and free societies was “at great risk.”
“All over the world, autocrats — and those who aspire to join their ranks — have used censorship, media repression and attacks on journalists to consolidate power,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “That’s because gaining control of information is essential to gaining control of everything else.”
He noted that he was making his statement “with little optimism,” given the global deterioration of press freedom in recent years.
In countries with strong press freedom — a group in which he included the United States — journalists were facing “systematic campaigns to undermine their credibility, followed by attacks on the legal protections that safeguard their work,” he said.
Mr. Sulzberger noted that “in Russia, journalists who dare to even acknowledge the war in Ukraine face long prison terms.”
As of Dec. 1, 2022, the committee found that 363 reporters were behind bars — a new global high that surpassed the previous year’s record by 20 percent.
Mr. Gershkovich was detained in late March while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg and charged with espionage, accusations that the United States considers bogus. The Journal, The Times and The Washington Post ran full-page ads last week that said Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest was “the latest in a disturbing trend where journalists are harassed, arrested or worse for reporting the news.”
Almar Latour, the publisher of The Journal, said at the event, held at the U.N. General Assembly Hall, that Mr. Gershkovich’s detention has been a “gut punch” for his colleagues. It has had a chilling effect, rippling throughout the industry, with other reporters worrying the same could happen to them, he said.
But “we cannot withdraw from reporting about the world,” Mr. Latour said. “There’s probably no better answer to autocracies trying to squash and diminish journalism than to offer great journalism to the world.”
Mr. Sulzberger’s remarks likewise touched a note of optimism, saying he was “inspired” by the work of four journalists who have been detained in their countries or abroad: Maria Ressa in the Philippines, José Rubén Zamora in Guatemala, Pape Alé Niang in Senegal and Austin Tice in Syria, among others.
In total, the event was likely to present a story of “a worldwide assault on journalists, their work and the public’s right to know,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And it will only be solved if the nations that make up this body take action.”