May 3 is observed as World Press Freedom Day every year. The day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. Since then, May 3, the anniversary of the declaration is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day. The day offers an opportunity to:
- celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
- assess the state of press freedom throughout 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.
Every year a special theme is chosen for the day. The 2019 theme is Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. While observing the day, the Committee for Protection of Journalists said the at least 1,340 journalists have been killed in relation to their work worldwide since 1992. The theme aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the UN General Assembly in 2015. SDG 16, for example, concerns issues of peace and democracy as preconditions for equitable and sustainable development. It states “When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes.” SDG 16.10 also urges states to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
According to the International Federation of Journalists, in 2018 alone, at least 94 journalists were killed. The 2018 data indicates an increase from the previous year which concluded with 82 fatalities. The most dangerous countries for journalists in 2018 were Afghanistan with 16 fatalities and Mexico with 11, followed by Yemen with 9, Syria with 8 and India with 7. The data, presented by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), identifies slightly lower numbers of fatalities at 80 (with 49 deliberately killed and 31 killed while reporting). The RSF report further confirms that three journalists were reported missing, 60 held hostage and 348 detained. RSF names Afghanistan as the most dangerous place for journalists with 15 fatalities, followed by Syria with 11, Mexico with 9, Yemen with 8 and the US and India with 6 each. Despite the difference in figures, both agree that 2018 witnessed an increase in such fatalities and the level of threat to journalists.
Journalists’ safety is under serious threat in conflict areas. However, various reports feature many countries without reputations for active armed conflicts. In the US, for example, four journalists employed by the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, were killed on June 28, 2018, when a man walked in and opened fire. Recent years have shown that even strong and stable European countries do not escape violence against journalists. For example, in October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist exposing government corruption and misconduct by Maltese politicians and Panama Papers, was murdered in a car bomb attack in Malta, a place considered to be peaceful and safe. Nineteen months later, Maltese investigators are still no closer to expose those responsible for the act.
At least 250 journalists were imprisoned across the world simply for doing their job, according to CPJ’s 2018 prison census. There has also been an uptick in journalists imprisoned on “false news” charges, with 19 cases in Egypt, followed by Cameroon with four, Rwanda with three, and one each in China and Morocco. The world’s worst jailers of journalists continue to be Turkey, China, and Egypt. The three countries combined were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world.
During this year, social media was blocked in Sri Lanka following recent terror attacks. A radio station and show hosts were sued for defamation in Liberia, Russian police beat at least 1 journalist, arrest 2 during May Day protests in St. Petersburg. As unfolding events show, the contribution of free, pluralistic, independent and safe journalism to democracy is under unprecedented threat today. The World Press Freedom Day comes as a reminder that society as a whole has to do more to protect journalists who act as guardians of public interest.
To respond to some of the challenges facing the press, only a few weeks before the World Press Freedom Day, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland launched a joint initiative “Defend Media Freedom” that aims to shine a spotlight on media abuses and address the trend of violence against journalists. On July 10-11, 2019, the UK and Canada will host the International Conference on Media Freedom to further the aims of the joint campaign.
Another initiative that needs to be mentioned is Trial Watch, launched by the Clooney Foundation for Justice in cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the American Bar Association, Columbia Law School and Microsoft. Among others, the initiative will monitor trials of journalists around the world to ensure that the judicial system is not used to silence journalists and curtail freedom of speech. Ensuring the safety of journalists is the only way we can foster the independence and freedom of the press which is crucial for democracy.