TIME’s editor-in-chief on why the Guardians are the Person of the Year
On the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, two young reporters sit in a prison said to be “the darkest hellhole in Burma.” Millennials, we would call them in America—Wa Lone is 32 years old; Kyaw Soe Oo is 28. The genesis of their arrest, one year ago on Dec. 12, is their reporting for the Reuters news service that later exposed a mass execution of 10 Rohingya Muslims, part of a violent campaign against the minority group by Myanmar’s military. “I never expected he would be arrested,” says Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife Chit Su Win. “I was more concerned about him getting shot.”
It has long been the first move in the authoritarian playbook: controlling the flow of information and debate that is freedom’s lifeblood. And in 2018, the playbook worked. Today, democracy around the world faces its biggest crisis in decades, its foundations undermined by invective from on high and toxins from below, by new technologies that power ancient impulses, by a poisonous cocktail of strongmen and weakening institutions. From Russia to Riyadh to Silicon Valley, manipulation and abuse of truth is the common thread in so many of this year’s major headlines, an insidious and growing threat to freedom.
As Facebook faced an overdue reckoning on how to control the driverless car of social media, hazards to traditional sources of information continued to mount. On Nov. 28, owners of more than 400 media outlets in Hungary “donated” control to a pro-government conglomerate created by allies of its nativist Prime Minister. This spring, two journalists in India, the world’s largest democracy, were killed in separate, deliberate hit-and-run attacks in the span of 24 hours. In June, a subject of a local newspaper’s coverage was accused of having marched into its Maryland newsroom and killing five staffers. This fall, CNN has twice had to evacuate its New York offices because of bomb threats.
In its highest forms, influence—the measure that has for nine decades been the focus of TIME’s Person of the Year—derives from courage. Like all human gifts, courage comes to us at varying levels and at varying moments. This year we are recognizing four journalists and one news organization who have paid a terrible price to seize the challenge of this moment: Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Md.
They are representative of a broader fight by countless others around the world—as of Dec. 10, at least 52 journalists have been murdered in 2018—who risk all to tell the story of our time.
For all the insults hurled by the President at the press, rhetoric which has been deployed by dangerous actors around the world, the U.S. remains a beacon for truth and free expression. This is a nation where, as we saw this year, a news organization can sue the White House and win, even at the hands of a judge appointed by that very White House.
One of the people who sought refuge in these freedoms was Khashoggi, the most visible representative of this harrowing year for truth. This marks the first year TIME has named someone who is no longer alive a Person of the Year. But it is also rare that a person’s influence grows so immensely in death. Directed by a killer whose motive was “control of information,” as Khashoggi’s fellow Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted, the murder has prompted a global reassessment of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, who a CIA assessment concluded likely ordered the killing, and the devastating war he has waged in Yemen.
Ressa is the founder and editor of a Philippine news site, Rappler, known for its fearless reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s propaganda machine and extrajudicial killings. In return, she has faced a barrage of government lawsuits aimed at the site, and violent hate messages on social media—at one point, 90 of them an hour. “Now is certainly not the time to be afraid,” she said on Dec. 3 after turning herself in and posting bail on tax-fraud charges that would carry jail sentences of up to 10 years—charges widely viewed as an effort to stifle her work.
The repercussions aren’t always from above. The gunman at the Capital Gazette allegedly was a local man aggrieved, years after the fact, that the paper’s reporting had brought his harassment of a woman out of the shadows. The massacre he perpetrated made America the fourth deadliest country in the world to be a journalist this year. But while the loss was immense and intensely personal, that day the staff at one of the nation’s oldest news outlets did what it has done since before the American Revolution—they put the paper out.
The press always has and always will commit errors of judgment, of omission, of accuracy. And yet what it does is fundamental. Says Andrea Chamblee, whose husband John McNamara was one of the five Capital Gazette staffers killed: “A lot of people don’t understand how important what goes on in their community is to them and how it affects their quality of life until it’s gone.”
For taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts that are central to civil discourse, for speaking up and for speaking out, the Guardians—Jamal Khashoggi, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Maria Ressa and the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Md.—are TIME’s Person of the Year.