20210608-OPN-democracy cartoon

Catching up with a friend over Zoom, I wondered recently what might have happened if China had come clean about the presence and origins of COVID-19 before it spread beyond Wuhan. But, my friend asked, wouldn’t the United States have done the same and tried to hide it too?

No, I replied. Even if our government had tried, it would have come to light. That’s the beauty of an open society and a free press.

Imagine if COVID-19 had first emerged in a country with a free press. Government officials might have quickly raised alarm and taken action, knowing the truth would get out. Or they might hesitate, but a nurse could call the local paper to raise concern about a mysterious new illness or reach out to a national news outlet over Twitter. A reporter with a tip might ask a question at a news conference.

The news wouldn’t have stayed quiet for long here. Our federal government then might have balked in denial, but U.S. states and other nations would have access to information far sooner than they did under China’s obstruction.

If the new virus had been brought to light sooner, how many of 3.5 million lives might have been saved? How many small businesses wouldn’t have shuttered? How many people would have kept their jobs and kids stayed in school?

Press freedom is essential for our protection, but in a globalized world, a free press at home isn’t enough to keep us safe. It must be a priority in U.S. foreign policy too.

Journalism is under attack worldwide. On May 23, the Belarusian government forcefully diverted a commercial passenger jet to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist living in exile. In 2018, Saudi Arabian agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, inside its consulate in Istanbul.

Less dramatic assaults happen every day. During the last week of May alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported nine incidents of imprisonment, beating, detention and harassment of journalists in eight countries. Murders and detentions of journalists globally are at record highs.

These attacks harm more than individuals. They have a chilling effect on the entire profession. Local reporters working under authoritarian regimes self-censor, fearing what might happen if they report the truth. Aspiring journalists seek other career paths. In the end, no one is there to reveal the crime, corruption or cover-up — so bad actors get worse, and we all pay the price.

We pay in the form of pandemics, a worsening global economy, crime and instability that crosses borders, in the poisoning of our environment and in unsustainable flows of migrants driven by all of the above.

A free press reveals problems before they become crises. It helps citizens choose better government and hold elected officials accountable. It informs foreign policy. The more integrated our global community, the more important that this freedom crosses borders too.

Press freedom is also an antidote to corrupt governance, so authoritarians will fight it. This is why we must address challenges to press freedom at early stages, when a reputation for freedom is still currency in a country and when friendly countries that support such freedoms still hold sway.

Belarus is a pariah state already, so imposing more sanctions is unlikely to secure Protasevich’s release. But other countries, such as Egypt, Somalia, and yes, Saudi Arabia, count on the United States for military support, economic aid and international partnership. We have sway we can use, but will we use it to promote a free press?

As a U.S. diplomat, I drafted strongly worded statements urging the release of journalists detained or worse. But those statements were never met with action. Like so many human rights we claim to value, our commitment only went so far. We didn’t take it seriously, so assaults on a free press continued.

If the United States were willing to use leverage, such as cutting assistance over violations of a free press, those countries might take it more seriously. The more countries that foster a free press, the safer we all will be.

We can’t take a free press for granted at home either. For four years, the press was attacked as the “enemy of the people,” reminiscent of attacks by authoritarians around the world. But the corporate threat to journalism in America may leave more lasting damage. Newsrooms are shrinking as big business gobbles up local outlets. Job cuts and pay cuts have a chilling effect on the industry too.

What happens when no one is there to report crimes, corruption or cover-ups where you live? The global threat next time might start closer to home. Will we be ready to protect the world from it, and ourselves too?

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.