The absurdity of World Press Freedom Day: A brief history

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly came together to declare May 3 World Press Freedom Day. The date was chosen to commemorate a UN-hosted 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 devoted my career to defending the rights of journalists around the world, I find it hard to get excited each year when World Press Freedom Day rolls around. Governments that routinely violate the rights of journalists emit solemn proclamations. UN agencies that are invisible most of the year host elaborate international conferences at which everyone speaks and nothing gets done. A UN panel on press freedom was cancelled to appease Turkey, the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

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Then there is the chilling data. More than 260 journalists were in prison around the world 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 that appeared to deliberate target the media. In a separate attack that same day, a reporter for the Pashto service of the BBC was gunned down in Khost province.

This record of murder and repression is why World Press Freedom Day matters, certainly this year when the international consensus about the importance of press freedom and independent media has begun to disintegrate. For a quarter century, that consensus helped define 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. Free expression, is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the United Nations, created in 1948. It declares 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 any media and regardless of frontiers.” In the 1970s, UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for press freedom, commissioned a report which concluded that news agencies based in New York, Paris, and London were setting the global information agenda. This was undoubtedly true. But for the Soviet Union, it was also a political wedge. The solution the Soviets proposed was for governments to step in to regulate the media and establish ethical standards.

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International media organizations and Western governments, including the United States, opposed the proposal, which would have gravely undermined press freedom. In 1984 the US withdrew from UNESCO in protest.

Five years later, the Soviet Union began to unravel. The Russian media, given latitude to work more freely under Glasnost (the term for Mikhail Gorbachev’s more lax government rules), challenged the 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 was lowered over the Kremlin in 1991, a global consensus had emerged that a free and open media could be an engine for accountability and democratic empowerment.

This notion was ratified when World Press Freedom Day was declared two years later. Over the next decade, the world witnessed an unprecedented expansion of press freedom as authoritarian leaders moved away from state control and direct censorship. It’s 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 onset of the war on terror. To put it into numbers, 81 journalists were in jail around the world at the end of the 2000. By the end of the following year it jumped to 118, and it’s been an upward trajectory ever since. Today, around, the world, nearly three quarters of all journalists jailed are being held on anti-state charges. Of course, the actual war on terror has been been deadly for journalists. A record 185 journalists have been killed in Iraq by both terrorists themselves and the governments fighting them.

The next round of backsliding followed the Arab Spring in 2011. The toppling 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 this control. A new wave of online repression ensued across north African and Middle Eastern countries. Russia, too, responded not just by restricting its own media, but by developing an offensive capability that it could deploy against countries like the US that it believed were using information to destabilize Russia.

At the moment when information is being weaponized, the historic defenders of press freedom, the US and Europe, are failing to step up. The EU is having a hard time finding its voice, perhaps because it is grappling with a press freedom crisis in two of its member states, Poland and Hungary, which are challenging democratic norms by imposing restrictions on the media through punitive media laws and control of government advertising. In Malta and Slovakia, two leading investigative journalists have been murdered.

Meanwhile, the president of the United States is engaged in  permanent war with the media and declares journalists to be enemies of the American people. Donald Trump shows no interest in defending the international system that has supported press freedom for the past two decades. Without global leadership, there is little consequence for countries that violate press freedom norms–whether it’s the Turkish government jailing journalists in record numbers or  Israeli snipers shooting reporters as they cover the ongoing protests in Gaza, or a suicide bomb in Kabul targeted at journalists

In this context, I will take every World Press Freedom Day proclamation that I can get. Every public protest, every UN-hosted panel discussion, bolsters, however slightly, the global norms that for several decades supported the expansion of press freedom around the world. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at a UN-designated holiday, without a shared consensus about the value and importance of press freedom this fundamental right will fade into oblivion.

This piece was updated on May 3 to add reference to the cancellation of a UN panel, and then to clarify Turkey’s involvement. Image via Unsplash. 

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Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His next book We Want to Negotiate: Inside the Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom, will be published by Columbia Global Reports in January 2019.