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Opinion | A Record Number of Journalists Jailed

To arrest Jimmy Lai and close down the popular Hong Kong tabloid he founded, Apple Daily, China used a catchall clause in its draconian national security law banning “collusion with external forces.” On Monday, Mr. Lai and seven other pro-democracy activists were sentenced to prison on another charge — gathering last year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

In mainland China, journalists face an array of bizarre charges such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which is what the journalist Zhang Zhan was accused of doing when she criticized China’s response to Covid-19. In Turkey, insulting the president is a crime; in Russia, a favorite weapon against journalists and media outlets is to label them “foreign agents.”

Condemning the persecution of journalists is not about protecting a profession or an industry. For its reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists identifies journalists as “people who cover the news or comment on public affairs in any media, including print, photographs, radio, television and online.” That, with the internet and social media, covers a vast array of people who are basically exercising their fundamental right to speak out against the excesses of those in power — or anything else on their mind.

That tension is also a prerequisite for keeping tabs on those in power, as America’s founders understood. The press was far more partisan, less restrained and more often unscrupulous back when James Madison argued for what became the First Amendment. Yet he declared, and the legislators agreed, that “the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

When China imprisons Ms. Zhang, who is currently on a hunger strike, or Belarus kidnaps Mr. Protasevich, whose parents say was coerced into confessing that he tried to topple Mr. Lukashenko, or any other journalist is thrown in jail for not kowtowing to the powers that be, that bulwark is being brutally and deliberately violated. That this is happening in record numbers should sound loud alarms the world over.

For Americans, there has been an increasing infringement on press freedom in recent decades that once seemed anathema to the country’s ideals. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each waged their battles with the press. President Donald Trump went much further, calling some news outlets the “enemy of the people.” President Biden’s administration has shown courage on certain fronts, such as standing down on efforts by federal prosecutors under Mr. Trump to secretly obtain phone and email records of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists report, however, coincided with the ruling of a British court that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, can be extradited to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.

It is most unfortunate that the U.S. government has chosen to continue to use a law as potent as the Espionage Act to pursue Mr. Assange. There is a debate about whether Mr. Assange is a journalist, but equating the publication of classified materials received from government sources with espionage strikes at the very foundations of a free press and should be rejected by Mr. Biden.

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