As it does every year, May 3 marks the day of recognition for World Press Freedom Day. It is a day when journalists and their allies around the world remind us, and governments, of the importance of a free press. This year the UN has designated as a global theme “Journalism Without Fear or Favor,” and at no other time has the theme been more appropriate.
While press freedom continues to lose ground in major countries each year over the past decade, attacks against the media in the United States are at a crisis. Hostility from the President of the United States includes public verbal abuse of journalists and their media companies. President Trump also continues to show no signs of supporting press freedom abroad either, often refusing to openly condemn attacks against and jailing of journalists by leaders of countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
According to Reporters Without Borders, last year the United States saw fewer jailing and attacks on journalists, yet the Trump administration in March 2019 began to investigate journalists to find material to embarrass or discredit them. They also went as far as banning certain journalists from press briefings, and journalists complained of excessive search measures, hostile questioning, and even detention at borders.
The Freedom Forum, which tracks press freedom in countries around the world, had this to say in its 2019 report on the United States: “Trump has been harshly critical of the mainstream media, routinely using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias and mendacity. He has maintained a drumbeat of attacks on individual journalists and established outlets, describing them as – among other things – “fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.’”
Yet even with the increased distrust of the media among American citizens and attacks by government officials, American journalists still enjoy freedom unprecedented in many nations around the world.
In 2019, 47 journalists were murdered around the world because of their work, according to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which I had the privilege of leading from 2009-2014. The number of deaths last year was a sharp decline over previous years and was the lowest recorded by IPI since 1997. The Committee to Protect Journalists noted that 554 journalists have been killed over the past decade.
“I think we see a lack of trust in the press that is growing, and I think we see hostility against the press from the public as well as the government. But journalists in America are still in a very privileged position and we should appreciate that, and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” says Damaso Reyes, an independent U.S. journalist based in Barcelona and founder of Clarify.media. “When we compare the situation of most American journalists compared to other places in the world, I think we can agree that the United States is still a good place to be a journalist.”
Reyes agrees, though, that the trend of attacks on journalists in the United States is “disturbing” and what happens in America concerning press freedom reverberates internationally.
“For better or for worse, the president has a tremendous amount of influence and we have a president in the U.S. who, to put it generously, has a very adversarial relationship with the press,” says Reyes, who also serves as co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Global Task Force. “We have a president who does not really understand or have an appreciation for a healthy and free press.”
The role of the news media today is more important than ever. The central role of the news media in providing accurate and independent information, and that role is under threat at a time when the world is facing a global pandemic. IPI reported 162 violations against journalists covering the COVID-19 virus globally. Many those violations were against journalists in India.
While there are those who continue to accuse journalists of providing “fake news,” anecdotal evidence indicates that increasing numbers of people are rallying to support the work news media is doing to provide critical information on the deadly virus.
As essential workers and key responders during the coronavirus crisis, journalists continue to cover the story, often putting themselves and, potentially, their families at risk.
Access to information is so critical during this period that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press outlined recommendations for journalists, legislators and courts in “Press freedom and government transparency during COVID-19. “Its focus is to make sure the public has access to government information and protects news media while they take necessary steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
And in its third annual assessment of the threats journalists faced in 2019, which you can find at rcfp.org/pressfreedoms2019 – Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Staff Attorney Sarah Matthews notes five key findings that are most disturbing: Protests are the most dangerous place for journalists in terms of arrests and attacks, with three women attacked sexually during live shots and journalists attacked a two Trump rallies; subpoenas continue to rise, raising concerns that they are being used as tools of retaliation or intimidation; law enforcement officials harassing journalists at the border; the rare prior restraint case seems to be on the rise; and federal leak prosecutions continued with the department of Justice prosecuting three people in 2019 for sharing government secrets with journalists.
These trends must be stopped in their tracks. Attacks on journalists in any form is an attack on democracy and the people’s right to know.
Says Matthews, “World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to come together in support of journalists and news outlets working around the world and around the clock to bring us accurate and reliable information.
“Their work is particularly critical right now, as we face the coronavirus pandemic.”
Due to COID-19 concerns, UNESCO has postponed the celebration of World Press Freedom Day to October 18-20, at which time the organization will also recognize International Day to End Impunity. The event will be held at The Hague in The Netherlands. For more information, go to https://www.un.org/en/observances/press-freedom-day and follow #JournalismUnfiltered.