On May 3, most cities across the globe celebrated World Press Freedom Day as much with a sense of pride as insecurity. At Helsinki, the UNESCO-led annual celebrations had more than 1,000 media practitioners, stakeholders and representatives of governments. They called on UNESCO’s 195 member states to “reaffirm that press freedom and the right to information are essential for a free, independent and pluralistic media and crucial to the advancement of human rights and sustainable development.”A bleak report card
The survey released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) was bleak. Its authors observed: “Journalists are killed, attacked, imprisoned and intimidated, governments censor or block access to information, paramilitary and terrorist organisations seek to control the message by attacking the messenger, and hate speech and propaganda — masquerading as journalism — raises its ugly head in every conflict around the world… At a time when communications technology should be offering us greater freedom of expression, impunity for those who commit crimes against journalists is almost universal.”
The IFJ’s report on South Asia was not encouraging either. In the period under review (May 2015 to April 2016), 31 journalists, bloggers, and media workers were killed. India is emerging as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, as is Bangladesh with an ongoing trend of violent attacks against bloggers. “Tackling South Asia’s poor record on impunity for crimes against journalists will take more than strong words. For those fighting impunity, the price can be high, but there have been positive signs with some arrests and convictions,” the IFJ said.
It cited the cases of the conviction of the killer of journalist Ayub Khattak in Pakistan, commencement of the trial into the forced disappearance of political cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda and reopening of other cases where journalists were targeted in Sri Lanka as victories in the battle against impunity. IFJ’s South Asia report, ‘The Road to Resilience’, documents how despite the dangers, journalists in South Asia are not only focussed on presenting the true story to the public, but have also taken up the task of ensuring people’s right to freedom of expression and press freedom. The report observed: “The journalists are taking their battles to the courts, streets and online space for advocacy and building unity and solidarity for campaigning on common causes.”
The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) looks at the present information crisis as one that is defined by more government surveillance and interference, more corporate snooping and exploitation of personal information, and a growing trend of abuse in online speech.
The EJN’s director, Aidan White, said: “Journalists must be free to exercise their profession without a climate of fear and intimidation. Ethical values in media are not marginal to democracy; they are essential to confronting the crisis of self-censorship, propaganda and hateful communications which are emerging around the world.”Free speech and its abuse
Mr. White makes the crucial distinction between everyone’s right to free speech and abuse that flows from a lack of respect and intolerance of others. He believes that if the core elements of ethical journalism — humanity, accuracy and transparency — are embedded in our communications as benchmarks, society will have responsible public communications. His other concern is the growing threat from online misogyny and emerging gender stereotypes. He seeks a concerted effort from Internet companies, policymakers and users to isolate and eliminate hate directed at women.
These concerns provide the context for the UNESCO’s Finlandia Declaration on May 3, 2016, which asserted that access to information and fundamental freedoms are rights, and that press freedom is an integral component of the right to freedom of expression. The declaration draws from the new United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that is committed to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies, which includes points relevant to press freedom, access to information, safety of journalists and the rule of law.
The UNESCO declaration is universal in nature. It does not provide any leeway for ultranationalistic exceptionalism to subvert the enshrined inalienable rights. It has asked governments to create a legal, policy and institutional environment to see that people get public information. It wants governments to grant some exceptions in secrecy rules for journalism. In the case of a ban on publication or blocking of Internet content, it expects governments to look at legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimate purpose before curbing any articulation. The Finlandia Declaration justifiably puts political will at the centre for addressing the culture of secrecy within government institutions. The declaration also seeks legal frameworks to protect the identity of confidential sources of journalists against direct and indirect exposure, and to protect whistleblowers. It has asked for effective safety mechanisms to monitor, prevent, investigate and punish attacks against journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression.
My annual column on Press Freedom Day is my personal tribute to this exciting, exhilarating, and challenging profession that has public interest at its operational core. My dream is to write a column in which I can celebrate a year of no killings, no kidnappings, and no extrajudicial attacks on journalists. Dreams do come true.