InternationalVolume 12 Issue # 19

Press: shrinking frontiers of freedom

World Press Freedom Day was observed throughout the world on May 2.In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare May 3 the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration as World Press Freedom Day. It is an annual event to honour journalists imprisoned or killed in the line of duty, and to take stock of the state of press freedom around the world. World Press Freedom Day is co-ordinated by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which chalks out a detailed programme of activities for the day. As outlined by UNESCO, the purpose behind observing the day is threefold: “To evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” The theme in 2017 World Press Freedom Day is “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”. It is relevant to mention here that the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano prize goes to an imprisoned Eritrean-Swedish journalist called Dawit Isaak. Arrested during a media crackdown in September 2001, he has not been heard from since 2005 and his current location is unknown. Guillermo Cano, the Colombian reporter the prize is named after, was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota in 1986. UNESCO issued a special statement on the occasion, saying, “Free, independent and pluralistic media has never been so important to empower individual women and men, strengthen good governance and the rule of law, and take forward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The year 2016 was specially hard for press freedom as 102 journalists were recorded killed during the year. Also new draconian laws were passed. Rights groups have pointed to events in Turkey and the US as examples of crackdowns on freedom of expression. Gathering pace is a campaign to demand the release of more than 120 journalists detained in Turkey following the summer 2016 coup attempt.

Since the failed takeover attempt in July 2016, at least 156 of Turkey’s media outlets have reportedly been shut down and some 2,5000 journalists and other media workers have lost their jobs. The state of the press in America and elsewhere around the world is experiencing a decline not seen in recent years. This reality can be attributed to governments’ and organizations’ overt disdain toward the press and free expression. Silencing or, as has become the case in the United States, disparaging the free press has become common practice and is the most outright cowardly act in which the perpetrators engage in order to advance their despotic and often criminal agendas at the expense of the people they serve, thus shattering democratic norms and preventing a discourse that generally can benefit society. The Trump Administration’s attack on the press from the days on the campaign trail all the way to the dais at the White House is putting the press on the defensive with detrimental consequences that include coverage of events and issues from the lens of the oppressed rather than that of an objective pursuit of the truth. On Press Freedom Day, the United Nations issued a statement saying “fake news” is on the rise, and media accountability and credibility are falling under question in a “post-truth” world. “Fake news” is an expression popular with new US President Donald Trump.

The coverage of news events since the first day of his administration has been put under the spotlight in a call-to-action by Amnesty USA. It claims reporters have been arrested for merely covering events such as the riots following Trump’s inauguration in January and protests against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in February. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, State censorship, governments imprisoning critics, and internet crackdowns and surveillance are all on the rise, which has led to an “upsurge in killings and imprisonment of journalists around the world,”. The CPJ’s 2017 Attacks on the Press report, released last month, tracked its highest number of jailed journalists around the world yet 259 and over 1,200 journalists killed on the job in the past 25 years, from Mexico to Russia to Iraq and Syria. Freedom House, a Washington-based non-profit body, publishes an annual report on world rankings of press freedom, and 2017 looks equally bleak to them. “The fierce attacks we have seen on factual reporting pose a danger to freedom of the press around the world,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, Freedom House president. He specifically called attention to the United States’ toxic political environment, where President Donald Trump and his top cadre of advisers labeled the press “the opposition party.” Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has confirmed they have looked at changing libel laws to make news organizations easier to sue. Freedom House reports that only 13 percent of the world lives in countries with a free media environment, and forty-five percent live in countries without a free press. The report notes that some of the starkest drops in press freedom occurred in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey all members of Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU that tout a free press as a core principle. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a botched coup attempt last July to consolidate power and purge journalists.

Since the failed coup, Erdogan’s government shutdown at least 156 media outlets, forced the firing of 2,500 journalists, and jailed over 120. In response to this, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for “an end to all crackdowns against journalists because a free press advances peace and justice for all.” Reporters play a critical role in holding governments accountable for human rights abuses. World Press Freedom Day is a reminder that resorting to censorship and punishment of free speech by governments, groups and individuals in power only illustrates their insecurities and their choice to suppress dissent and divergent approaches exposes their fears. While the battle for press freedom continues, the press also has a responsibility to stay true to the tenets of journalism and engage in reporting facts and truths in order to reclaim its credibility and the trust of the public.