The Absurdity of World Press Freedom Day: A Brief History
In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly gathered to declare May 3 World Press Freedom Day. The date was chosen to commemorate a UN-organized conference held in the South African country of Namibia at which participants expressed support for “independent and pluralistic media”.
If you’re yawning at this point, I forgive you. Even as someone who has dedicated my career to defending the rights of journalists around the world, I find it hard to get excited every year as World Press Freedom Day approaches. Governments that routinely violate journalists’ rights issue solemn proclamations. UN agencies that are invisible most of the year hold elaborate international conferences where everyone talks and nothing is done. A UN panel on press freedom has been canceled to appease Turkey, the world’s top jailer of journalists.
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Then there’s the scary data. More … than 260 journalists were in prison worldwide at the end of last year, the highest number ever recorded by CPJ. Earlier this week, at least nine journalists were killed in a suicide attack carried out by the Islamic State in Kabul which appeared to deliberately target the media. In a separate attack on the same day, a journalist from the BBC’s Pashto service was shot dead in Khost province.
This record of killings and repression is why World Press Freedom Day matters, certainly in this year when the international consensus on the importance of press freedom and independent media has begun to disintegrate. . For a quarter of a century, this consensus has helped shape critical global free expression policies, including those that facilitated the creation of the World Wide Web. Without it, the future of global free expression is in jeopardy.
To understand why, we need to take a historical look at how the consensus emerged. Freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the United Nations, created in 1948. It states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through all media and regardless of frontiers. In the 1970s, UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for press freedom, commissioned a report concluding that news agencies based in New York, Paris and London were setting the global news agenda. . It was undoubtedly true. But for the Soviet Union it was also a political corner. The solution proposed by the Soviets was for governments to step in to regulate the media and establish ethical standards.
International media and Western governments, including the United States, opposed the proposal, which would have seriously undermined press freedom. In 1984, the United States withdrew from UNESCO in protest.
Five years later, the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble. Russian media, which was allowed to operate more freely under Glasnost (the term for Mikhail Gorbachev’s looser government rules), challenged historical myths at the heart of the Soviet Union and exposed corruption and incompetence. that had been hidden from the public. By the time the hammer and sickle were lowered on the Kremlin in 1991, a global consensus had emerged that a free and open media could be an engine of accountability and democratic empowerment.
This notion was endorsed when World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed two years later. Over the next decade, the world saw an unprecedented expansion of press freedom as authoritarian rulers moved away from state control and direct censorship. It is no coincidence that the global Internet emerged during this period, as there was little ideological opposition to the creation of a shared global resource.
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The trend began to reverse with the start of the War on Terror. To sum up, 81 journalists were in prison around the world at the end of 2000. By the end of the following year, it had risen to 118, and the trajectory has been rising ever since. Today, all over the world, almost three quarters of all imprisoned journalists are being held on anti-state charges. Of course, the real the war on terrorism has been deadly for journalists. A record 185 journalists were killed in Iraq both by the terrorists themselves and by the governments fighting them.
The next set of setbacks followed the Arab Spring in 2011. The overthrow of entrenched regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, celebrated by democracy advocates, was interpreted differently by authoritarian leaders around the world. They recognized the need to control information in order to retain power, and that the Internet posed a threat to that control. A new wave of online repression has ensued in countries across North Africa and the Middle East. Russia has also reacted not only by restricting its own media, but by developing a offensive ability that he could deploy against countries like the United States which he believed were using information to destabilize Russia.
At a time when information is militarized, the historic defenders of press freedom, the United States and Europe, are not mobilizing. The EU is struggling to find its voice, perhaps because it is grappling with a press freedom crisis in two of its member states, Poland and Hungary, which challenges democratic standards by imposing media restrictions through punitive media laws and government advertising controls. In Malta and Slovakia, two leading investigative journalists have been murdered.
Meanwhile, the President of the United States is engaged in a permanent war with the media and declares journalists enemies of the American people. Donald Trump shows no interest in defending the international system that has sustained press freedom for the past two decades. Without global leadership, there are few consequences for countries that violate press freedom standards – whether it’s the Turkish government jailing journalists in record numbers or Israeli snipers shooting journalists as they cover the ongoing protests in Gaza, or a suicide bombing in Kabul targeting journalists
In this context, I will accept all World Press Freedom Day proclamations that I can obtain. Every public event, every round table organized by the UN reinforces, however slightly, the global standards that for decades have underpinned the expansion of press freedom around the world. While it is easy to roll your eyes on a UN-designated holiday, without a shared consensus on the value and importance of press freedom, this fundamental right will be forgotten.
This article was updated on May 3 to add a reference to the cancellation of a UN panel, then to clarify Turkey’s involvement. Image via Unsplash.
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Joel Simon is a Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. His next book is The infodemic: how censorship has made the world sicker and less free co-written with Robert Mahoney.