WESTPORT — “First they came for the journalist. ... Nobody knows what happens next.”

This phrase, recounted by Westporter Mark Friedman from a political cartoon he recently read, set the tone at Friday’s discussion and celebration of World Press Freedom Day at Westport Town Hall.

Although comical, the cartoon seemed ominous, especially in light of the United States receiving a recent Reporters Without Borders free press rating of 48 out of 180, according to Friedman, an investment adviser and founder of iheartfreedomofthepress.com.

The forum, titled “Freedom of the Press and the Impact of Money, Politics and Censorship,” featured a panel of free press advocates and experts. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., also sat on the panel, along with Yale Law School lecturer Francesca Procaccini and Washington advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists Michael De Dora.

To celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut invited the community to talk about why having a free press is important and why it’s becoming more challenging to maintain it.

According to the panelists, there are many challenges of maintaining a free press, including financial incentives in advertisement, the disappearing of local media, censorship and long processes for receiving public information. Algorithms, clickbait and how technology features can also shape one’s worldview, often shutting people into a cocoon of preexisting biases.

One way people can counter this is to change how they consume news, said De Dora, and encouraged people to create a robust network of news sources instead of relying on a single organization.

Himes contended one sign of quality journalism is the way news organizations establish their mistake processes.

“News media outlets that have a process to go back and see how they make mistakes and admit to making mistakes ... those are likely to be the good news approaching objectivity,” he said.

The mood of the discussion became even more ominous after De Dora shared recent CPJ data of journalists being targeted and murdered at home and abroad, like the four reporters of the Capital Gazette in 2018.

“We (the U.S.) are, to many countries, the beacon of freedom. We need to keep our own house in order and I think we need to do better,” Friedman said. “I think we can do better.”

Both Friedman and De Dora spoke to the probability of it becoming much harder to hold outside government officials accountable if the U.S. itself is not maintaining a free press.

Panelists suggested emphasizing free press in education and additional investment in nonprofit organizations that participate in news coverage, like ProPublica.

Of the nearly 100 people in attendance sat a row of young students in business attire.

August Modija, 19, a freshman global political economy student at the University of Bridgeport, asked about the relationship between government officials and the press.

Modija, who is from South Africa, described the information at the forum particularly important as someone who comes from a continent where having a free press is a major issue, and where journalists receive opposition from elected officials.

Despite wishing the conversation would have dug further into those issues, Modija said she’ll carry the conversation on her own.

“As a young person, it is important to understand issues of freedom of the press and how to incorporate solutions into legislature, and to have an access of different forms of knowledge before forming an opinion,” she said.

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