On World Press Freedom Day, little press freedom to speak of

Reports released by multiple organization are calling this the most dangerous conditions for journalists in decades

Last Saturday, May 3, was annual World Press Freedom Day. This year, the state of press freedom is especially grim; journalists face imprisonment, kidnapping, and death for doing their jobs.

“Unfortunately, we really don’t have a lot to celebrate,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “If you look at the statistics, these are basically the worst times for journalists in CPJ’s history … We’re seeing a record number of journalists imprisoned.”

That includes Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky in Ukraine and three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. And there are hundreds more (211 as of December 1, 2013) cases that haven’t gotten as much attention. For World Press Freedom Day, CPJ highlighted 10 imprisoned journalists: men and women held for years on “anti-state” charges (or no charges at all) in countries like Eritrea, China, and Iran.

CPJ isn’t the only organization warning that the world has become more dangerous for journalists. In its 2014 Freedom of the Press report, released last week, Freedom House noted that “global press freedom fell to its lowest level in over a decade” last year. Reporters Without Borders said 2013’s death toll for journalists was “very high,” with a 129 percent increase in abductions. And in its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders noted a trend in “countries regarded as democracies” where national security is used to restrict freedom of information. Lest anyone think America is a shining beacon of press freedom, USA fell 14 places from last year, from 32 to 46. In America, Reporters Without Borders wrote, “the whistleblower is the enemy.”

Among the most dangerous countries for journalists right now, Simon said, are Syria (28 journalists killed in 2013, two this year), Ukraine (several journalists have been abducted and attacked during the country’s recent troubles, and one was killed earlier this year) and Pakistan (a “near-perfect record of impunity” when it comes to journalist murders). Simon noted that there has been some progress—Pakistan recently convicted six men in the 2011 murder of a journalist, and the level of violence against the press in Colombia has decreased dramatically in the last several years—but only in the countries that are willing to work for it.

“Governments that recognize this is a problem, you can engage with them,” Simon said. “And we have seen progress when that occurs. But there are many countries around the world that just aren’t engaging, don’t see this as an issue, don’t respect the work of journalists.”

World Press Freedom Day aims to remind everyone how important a truly free and independent press is, to look at how that press is being threatened, and to support members of the press who currently face persecution for their work. Fittingly, this was the day that those three Al Jazeera journalists returned to an Egyptian court. Simon hoped it would also be the day that they were freed from jail, where they’ve been since last December.

“If they’re not released, it will be a sad irony,” Simon said.

The judge wished the three a “happy World Press Freedom Day,” then refused their request for bail and sent them back to prison.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.