“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”
By Lena Williams
May 19, 2017 – On May 3, journalists, watchdog groups and defenders of the press marked the 24th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day with a sobering international assessment on the state of press freedom.
The observance was established by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to remind the international community that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. It was intended to be an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
But more than ever, local, state, federal and foreign governments are engaging in campaigns to silence and discredit members of the media and news organizations. Internet crackdowns and surveillance are being used to intimidate and harass journalists. And propaganda and fake news have been used as weapons – to undermine legitimate news and sow confusion among the public.
This year, World Press Freedom Day served to highlight another disturbing phenomenon: an upsurge in killings and the imprisonment of journalists around the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that a record 259 journalists around the world were jailed in 2016. CPJ also reported that over 1,200 journalists have been killed on the job in the past 25 years.
“The fierce attacks we have seen on factual reporting pose a danger to freedom of the press around the world,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.
Abramowitz specifically called out the United States’ “toxic political environment.”
“Vitriolic attacks on individual journalists and news outlets in the United States undermine our democracy’s status as a model of press freedom,” said Abramowitz.
But the problems faced by journalists in America pale in comparison to those of journalists in other parts of the world:
- Since last summer’s failed coup in Turkey, 120 journalists have been jailed, 156 media outlets shut down and 2,500 reporters have lost their jobs.
- In Russia, several leading independent news outlets have either been brought under state control or shutdown and 56 journalists have been killed since 1992, making Russia the third deadliest country for journalists in the 1992-2006 period.
- Egypt’s long history of harassing and detaining journalists has increased under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Several journalists have been jailed and media outlets have been pressured in an attempt to censor critical voices, gag orders have been issued on sensitive topics and the pretext of national security has been used to crackdown on human rights and press freedom.
- The Chinese government has long kept tight reins on both traditional and new media to avoid potential subversion of its authority. Its tactics often entail strict media controls using monitoring systems and firewalls, shuttering publications or websites, and jailing dissident journalists, bloggers, and activists.
On a day when the world focused its attention on press freedom there were calls to action at home and abroad by journalists, media outlets and unions representing journalists to take more aggressive steps to counter the growing threats to a free press.
The NewsGuild-CWA, which represents 22,000 journalists and other media workers, marked the day by launching a campaign to protect the Right to Report and asked those who treasure freedom of the press to sign a petition to protect this cherished right.
“These are not ordinary times,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild-CWA. “Journalists are expected to be objective in our reporting, but we cannot ignore threats to the right to report and the people’s right to be informed.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for “an end to all crackdowns against journalists because a free press advances peace and justice for all.”
Human Rights Watch noted that journalists are under threat in both democracies and dictatorships and called upon governments to keep journalists safe.
Even the U.S. State Department issued a statement reaffirming its “commitment to promoting the fundamental principles of a free press around the world” and honoring the “men and women who work tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to tell the stories we would not otherwise hear. They are the guardians of democratic values and ideals.”
That’s rich coming from an agency headed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has barred members of the press from accompanying him on state visits overseas and hasn’t met one-on-one with the press since taking office on Feb. 1.
But World Press Freedom Day was also a time to honor journalists, those who have been killed in the line of duty, like Anna Politkosvskaya, a journalist who became known for her opposition to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She was murdered in an elevator in her apartment building in Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006. And Chauncey Bailey, an African-American journalist who was shot dead on a downtown street in Oakland, CA, on Aug. 2, 2007, the victim of a crime syndicate he was investigating.
It was a day to honor the thousands of journalists who have been imprisoned for doing nothing more than their jobs. It was a moment to shine a light on journalism, a field described by Joseph Pulitzer, the famed newspaper publisher, as “a noble profession and one of unequalled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people.”
It, too, was a day to celebrate the brave men and women who report the news without fear or favor, who help expose wrongdoing, who seek the truth and report it to the citizens of the world.