- 24 Sep 19
In an unprecedented revelation yesterday, the publisher of one of the largest journalistic institutions in the United States admitted the paper relied on Irish diplomats to extract one of their journalists due to fears that President Trump would not act.
The Publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, revealed that two years ago, his paper had to call upon the Irish government to extract a journalist who was facing arrest by the Egyptian government when a Trump administration official warned the American President would not be willing to help.
The revelation came in a speech before Brown University students on Monday and was later printed in the Opinion section of the New York Times.
Sulzberger, who has only been printed in the paper in his capacity as Publisher on two other occasions – once when he became publisher and again in April of this year on the subject of data privacy – spoke in general about the growing threat to journalism across the world.
After broadly speaking along the expected lines of increased hostility from the Trump administration and the true dangers of working as a journalist who speaks out against those in power, Sulzberger asserted that the rollback of press freedoms in the United States should be alarming to everyone.
"To give you a sense of what this retreat looks like on the ground, let me tell you a story I’ve never shared publicly before," he said. "Two years ago, we got a call from a United States government official warning us of the imminent arrest of a New York Times reporter based in Egypt named Declan Walsh. Though the news was alarming, the call was actually fairly standard. Over the years, we’ve received countless such warnings from American diplomats, military leaders and national security officials."
However, Sulzberger says it was what happened next that raised a red flag.
"We learned the official was passing along this warning without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration. Rather than trying to stop the Egyptian government or assist the reporter, the official believed, the Trump administration intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out. The official feared being punished for even alerting us to the danger."
The threat that Walsh, a native of Ireland, was in danger of arrest by the Egyptian government, was deemed credible by the New York Times. But, without the support of the Trump administration, Sulzberger had to turn instead to the Irish government for help.
"Unable to count on our own government to prevent the arrest or help free Declan if he were imprisoned, we turned to his native country, Ireland, for help," he recalls. "Within an hour, Irish diplomats traveled to his house and safely escorted him to the airport before Egyptian forces could detain him."
Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 this morning, Declan Walsh recalled the incident, saying that there is an assumption that a newspaper can turn to its own government for support when one of their reporters, regardless of citizenship, comes under threat in a place like Egypt where the threat of journalistic prosecution runs high.
"Egypt is one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world," he insists.
In this scenario, however, Walsh says the long-standing tradition of protecting journalists in dangerous countries was not respected by the Trump administration as he was turned away by the American Embassy.
"My first port of call was to the US Embassy in Cairo, but they told me as an Irish citizen I should go to my own embassy first," he recalls. "I called the Irish Ambassador, Damien Cole, and Damien sent an Irish official around to my apartment pretty much within an hour with a car and the embassy driver."
The swift action of the Irish government helped prevent a potential arrest, according to Walsh.
"I grabbed a few things and we went immediately to the airport from there and I took a flight to Europe, the first flight I could get out."
While Sulzberger commends the Irish government for defending and protecting his journalist, he warns that seemingly no country remains untouched by the plague of anti-journalistic sentiment.
"In attacking American media, President Trump has done more than undermine his own citizens’ faith in the news organisations attempting to hold him accountable," he asserts. "He has effectively given foreign leaders permission to do the same with their countries’ journalists, and even given them the vocabulary with which to do it."
The term "fake news", he argues, has been emboldened by government leaders – including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – to justify anti-press sentiments. He counts over 50 leaders who have used the term and calls upon all of them, from brutal leaders like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to "liberal leaders" like Varadkar, to reconsider their aggression towards the press.
"This is a perilous moment for journalism, for free expression and for an informed public," warns Sulzberger. "But the moments and places where it is most difficult and dangerous to be a journalist are the moments and places where journalism is needed most."
Read A.G. Sulzberger's full speech, "The Growing Threat to Journalism Around the World", here.