01/20/2015 02:10 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

The Right to Hold a Pen

On Jan. 7, people around the world woke up to the news that militants had attacked the Paris headquarters of a French satirical magazine, killing 12. By Jan. 8, you would be hard-pressed to find someone with access to the Internet, newspapers or any media sources who didn't know the name "Charlie Hebdo" or the now iconic image of the red pencil. On Jan. 11, the offices of German tabloid "Hamburger Morgenpost" were firebombed after they reprinted the "Charlie Hebdo" cartoons. These incidents are merely symptoms of a growing global problem: suppression, censorship, and punishment of news organizations and ongoing threats to freedom of the press.

The horrifying events at "Charlie Hebdo" are unique in their particular circumstances, but they are not unique in their targets. Many journalists face daily threats and intimidation for simply doing their job -- reporting the news. A French organization, Reporters Without Borders, compiles the annual World Press Freedom Index, ranking countries by the amount of liberty afforded to home media organizations. Some of the results from 2014 are predictable: North Korea comes in second-to-last at 179 and Russia at 148. However, those who subscribe to the idea that America is the "model democracy" might be surprised to see the U.S. at 46, below many other democratic nations and its allies. Even in countries where freedom of the press is supposedly guaranteed to its citizens, journalists continue to be targeted.

Russian journalists have been attacked for coverage of the Ukraine conflict that did not align with the government's stance, and jailed for publishing anti-corruption blogs, interviewing Siberian autonomy activists and spreading "gay propaganda." The British intelligence organization GCHQ forced "Guardian" editors to destroy their hard drives after publishing information leaked by Snowden; they have been spying on journalists, reading their emails and placing investigative journalists on their threat lists. Turkey jailed the most journalists in 2012-2013 and is currently prosecuting 70 for their coverage of the alleged corruption in Erdogan's cabinet. By now, most are familiar with the actions taken against Edward Snowden after his whistleblowing here in the U.S., but that was, just like the Paris massacre, in no way an isolated incident. Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange were both investigated after the Wikileaks release of classified information, with Manning now serving the second of 35 years in prison. New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days after refusing to reveal confidential sources to government officials. The current administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all the previous administrations combined.

The carnage at "Charlie Hebdo" was particularly shocking not only because of its brutality and abruptness, but also because it personified the increasing number of attacks on journalists. There have been 1110 journalists killed since 1992 and 404 forced into exile since 2009. The number of imprisoned journalists has steadily increased from 81 in 2000 to 221 in 2014. While Western nations claim to be champions of free speech and press, their actions speak much louder than such declarations. Since the "Hebdo" attack, the French government has put 100 people under investigation for "speech supporting terrorism," revealing a double standard in its recent free speech demonstrations.

Hate speech of any kind is abhorrent, but we cannot condone or even revere some forms and outlaw other forms. Once censorship begins, it is difficult to decide when to put on the brakes. Certain groups, usually those in power, inevitably get more protection than others. The line between satire and hate speech is defined by the side of it you happen to be standing on. What one person considers their religious belief might be deeply insulting to the next. What a blogger sees as crucial efforts to reveal corruption might be seen as treasonous by the state.

So, why journalists? Why is the right to hold the metaphorical pencil so consistently investigated, jeopardized, and censured? Because journalism can inform. Journalism can teach, reveal, and inspire. Journalism can expose the truth, add a human face to any story and connect people from across the globe. Journalism holds the power of knowledge, which has the potential to create outrage, ignite movements and break down oppressive regimes. Gorbachev agreed that electronic communication and media democratization were factors in the democratization of the Soviet Union. North Korean citizens are slowly becoming more and more aware of the brutality, coercion and surveillance committed by its government, mostly due to an increased awareness of the outside world as we know it. The increase in globalized media and the democratization of media through the Internet has increased the power of journalists and citizen journalists to spread information rapidly, effectively, and powerfully. The subsequent crackdown by governments in recent years should not be surprising but expected; when you feel your grip on power slacken, you grip tighter.

We must not forget that while the French massacre was, and this goes without saying, horrific and unjustifiable in its own right, it is not rare or unexpected in its targets. The fight for freedom of the press does not stop here, with several solidarity marches and many empty words from its leaders. All nations, Western or otherwise, should be held accountable for their constant assaults on this essential liberty.