Press Freedom Day Underscores the Necessity of Independent Media

Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.

May 3 marked the 26th annual United Nations Press Freedom Day. On this day, we:

  • Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • Defend the media from attacks on their independence; and
  • Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The media watchdog organization, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points out that less than ten percent of the world’s population is now living in countries where journalists enjoy a favourable environment and are able to practice their profession freely and independently – a country coloured either white or light grey on the World Press Freedom Map that is derived from the 2019 World Press Freedom Index unveiled by RSF on April 18.

Seventy-four percent of the world’s population lives in a country that is coloured dark grey or black on the map, in other words, a country where the press freedom situation is regarded as difficult or very serious, where the freedom to inform is heavily suppressed. This is the case not only in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia but also in democracies such as Mexico and India. If you include the countries coloured mid-grey, where the situation is regarded as problematic, the figure rises to 91%.

Much of this imbalance is due to the demographic weight of certain of the countries occupying some of the lowest positions in RSF’s Index. India, which is ranked 140th, and China, which is ranked 177th, have a combined population of 2.7 billion, whereas Norway, the country ranked first in the Index, has only 5.2 million inhabitants.

Along with Norway, six other countries in the top 10 are European. The three non-European ones are New Zealand at number 7, Jamaica at number 8 and Costa Rica at number 10. The 11th position is actually occupied by a former Soviet Republic – Estonia. Canada ranks 18th and just edges into the second, or satisfactory, category. The principal problems, according to RSF are: “A draft reform project for controversial Bill C-51 uses national security as an excuse to chill the free flow of information online, while the recent closure of more than 40 independent newspapers following an agreement between two of the country’s largest publishers risks compromising media pluralism in the country.”

Ukraine occupies 102th place, but still lies within the lower half of the middle, or “problematic” class. The war with Russia has considerable effect upon the ranking. “Information warfare with Russia has had negative consequences that include bans on Russian media and social networks, the blacklisting of foreign journalists and treason trials….The separatist-controlled areas in the east are still no-go areas without critical journalists or foreign observers,” says RSF.

But the situation has improved considerably since the Revolution of Dignity. “Ukraine has a diversified media landscape and its authorities have adopted a number of long-awaited reforms since the 2014 revolution, including laws on media ownership transparency and access to state-held information. But, as the new independent public broadcaster’s under-financing has shown, these gains are fragile. Much more is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media, encourage editorial independence and combat impunity,” says RSF.

The United States has been slipping steadily since the inauguration of Donald Trump and now, for the first time falls into the “problematic area.

“He (Trump) has declared the press an ‘enemy of the American people’ in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, and routinely uses the term ‘fake news’ in retaliation for critical reporting. He has even called for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses. The violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the US government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions,” says RSF.

“Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words,” adds the report.

Quite fittingly, the theme for this year’s Press Freedom Day is “Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. What we have seen in recent years is a growing trend towards reliance upon social media and away from traditional journalism. While this opens the door to unbridled press freedom in that everyone with online access now has a virtual printing press, it also opens the door to much abuse. Without the dedication to accuracy of professional journalism, fakes stories and rabid disinformation proliferate in cyberspace. This has enabled much manipulation of public opinion, especially as far as elections are concerned.

The Russian Federation, of course, is a master of such manipulation. It has interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and is planning to do the same in Canada’s upcoming one. According to Marcus Kolga, author of the report entitled: Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian Disinformation, released January 17 by the Macdonald–Laurier Institute, the Kremlin is engaged in a form of total information warfare against Canada and its allies. The goal of this campaign is to “tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government, media institutions, and each other.”

Another side effect of the growing trend towards social media and the internet in general as a source of information, is that it is pulling badly-needed advertising revenue away from the traditional outlets. The ability of traditional media to present objective coverage was based upon its ability to attract wide readership and the advertising revenue that comes with it. Once the media begins to rely on the financial support of its owners, it ceases to be independent, but becomes a vehicle for whatever viewpoints the owners choose to propagate and, even worse, whatever misinformation they may wish to circulate.

Thus, as we mark Press Freedom Day, it is important not only to stand up for freedom of speech and oppose the attempts to curtail it by authoritarian regimes, but also recognize the threat that is being posed in democratic countries through the proliferation of misinformation in cyberspace and the declining revenues of traditional media. Because if the financial backing for independent reporting is gone, so is independent reporting. And with that democracy itself is imperilled.

“None of humankind’s big problems – whether global warming, corruption or gender inequality – can be solved without information that is freely and independently reported and reliable, in other words, without quality journalism,” says RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire. “This situation is very worrying for journalists and above all for all those human beings who are being deprived of their right to information.”