Few Americans fully appreciate the freedoms provided to us in our Constitution. Basking in them for 242 years, we tend to take them for granted. Having served the United States in countries where people are deprived of basic rights, I came to have a profound respect for the Founding Fathers and the pains they took to protect us from tyrants.
But for the first time in our history, we have a would-be tyrant in the White House. His incessant attacks on the news media threaten our freedoms. As the Washington Post reminds us, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Journalists and news organizations today are collectively telling our president that his attacks are not only unwarranted, but un-American.
Throughout history, writers have notoriously gotten themselves into trouble for their ideas: Socrates was forced to kill himself by drinking poison for the crime of “impiety”; my namesake, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for having the temerity to say, among other things, that the earth revolved around the sun; the British Crown convicted in absentia the great English-American firebrand, Thomas Paine, for “seditious libel”; Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil, managed to escape Nazi Germany by the skin of her teeth and resettle in the United States; and the Soviet Union expelled Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974 for exposing the vast gulag forced labor camp system. Today, PEN International monitors the cases of some 900 writers who are persecuted worldwide.
In more than two decades as a U.S. diplomat, I served in communist-ruled Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, promoting human rights and basic freedoms, including that of expression. Part of that work included meeting with dissident journalists and writers, who often put themselves at great risk by talking with an American official. I helped resettle several Cuban writers in the U.S., and was later denounced by the Castro regime as a “Yankee ex-intelligence officer” who helped “carry out subversive actions against the Cuban government” for publishing a novel highly critical of that regime.
But my favorite Vietnamese dissident was the writer Duong Thu Huong. At our first get-together—over lunch in Hanoi—I asked her how she dealt with communist officials harassing her. With a twinkle in her eye, and without hesitation, she said: “I spit in their face!”
The groundbreaking Russian investigative journalist Artyom Borovik was intensely critical of Vladimir Putin. I’d occasionally meet him to discuss his reporting on Moscow’s role in Afghanistan. His “top-secret” TV program exposed the corruption of Russia’s political and economic elite—earning him many enemies. Borovik quoted Putin in a 2000 article saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” Days later, he died in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident. He was one of many Putin critics who have randomly turned up dead. He was 39.
I found it a privilege being acquainted with these very courageous writers, men and women who stood up against tyranny and authoritarianism—and who often paid a heavy price. Some were denied employment, others were harassed and imprisoned. Some lost their lives. These people deserve our unmitigated admiration and respect, not to mention our support.
Sadly, freedom of expression is under assault today in our own country. We have a president who almost daily refers to our news media as “the enemy of the people.” This is a term Stalin used in preparation for his bloody purges.
But our free press must be treasured. Principled people must stand up to these assaults on our fundamental right to express ourselves. Each person can find their own way to do so, but they have to do it—for all of our sakes, even if it means making some fierce enemies along the way. As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”