As World Press Freedom Day celebrates its 30th anniversary on May 3rd this year, it is alarming to see that media freedom has never faced greater threats worldwide.
In recent years, the emergence of organized disinformation campaigns and the rise of fake news have been particularly concerning. These phenomena have significantly impacted public discourse, making it harder for individuals to distinguish between fact and fiction and eroding trust in the media. Journalists and other media professionals serve a vital function in ensuring that the public is informed and those in power are held accountable.
However, these media professionals face growing threats, such as harassment, intimidation, and violence around the world, often as a result of reporting on sensitive subjects. This not only stifles freedom of expression but also hinders the media’s capacity to perform its duties effectively.
Autocratic and populist leaders strive to turn free press into a propaganda tool, distorting the truth rather than providing accurate information. While most nations lack a Ministry of Information to control information flow, efforts to conceal problems facing countries are pervasive. This year, UNESCO has chosen to publish and promote a single message, “Everything is Alright.” Some argue that it is unrealistic or Orwellian to imagine headlines saying “The Planet is Alright” or “All Refugees are Alright” or “War is Over” or “Everybody is Healthy,” nonetheless, such headlines are increasingly common.
When the UN General Assembly proclaimed an international day for press freedom 30 years ago, many journalists in the Middle East and Africa longed for the independence their counterparts enjoyed in reporting without fear. Press freedom is no longer solely a third-world issue, as Western democracies are also suffering from it.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) recent report, “Fragile Progress: The Struggle for Press Freedom in the European Union,” highlights that a safe haven for journalists no longer exists. The report discloses that journalists in EU countries face censorship, surveillance, online harassment, disinformation, abusive lawsuits, charges of revealing state secrets, and even physical assault during street protests, exclusion from public meetings, or verbal attacks from politicians. The report also indicates that some member states exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to control the media, including restricting journalists’ access and withholding public-interest information.
According to the 2022 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, the United States is no longer seen as a model for press freedom and free speech, with press freedom violations escalating rapidly. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s attendance at RSF’s 2023 Freedom Index launch is promising, but Washington must make significant strides to lead the promotion of press freedom worldwide.
Intimidating and silencing reporters has become an ever-growing problem, and no nation is immune to this pandemic. It is time for Western democracies to remember their core values and start practicing what they preach to protect global fundamental rights.
The United States must act decisively to promote press freedom and free speech, both domestically and internationally. Only then can we safeguard the essential role of journalists in holding the powerful accountable and preserving a functioning democracy.