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A commentary by Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited (FPU), for the Press Released editorial series
Is there really a ‘crisis in press freedom’? In his latest exclusive commentary for European Journalism Centre’s “Press Released” platform, FPU Director Leon Willems argues that this dystopian world view cannot ignore areas of progress.
From violence and government interference to financial constraints, censorship and gender diversity, the challenges facing independent media can appear monolithic. However, Willems’s examples from across the globe show that they are tempered with signs that the ‘crisis in press freedom’ could be bottoming out, or at least turning a corner.
The following is a column originally published on “Press Released”, a platform and commentary series established by EJC in partnership with Project Syndicate to stimulate debate around the global challenges confronting media and journalists.
by Leon Willems
ACCRA — Every year on May 3 — World Press Freedom Day — news producers and consumers pause to reflect on the state of global media. This year, as journalists and government officials gather in Ghana for the event’s 25th observance, attention will turn to the myriad pressures and challenges confronting the profession worldwide, and how official and state-sponsored hostility toward the press is threatening democracy.
But these concerns, though certainly valid, are not the entire story. Signs of journalistic resilience are also emerging. So, rather than focusing exclusively on the obstacles journalists around the world are facing, let’s mark May 3 by considering the many reasons for optimism.
For starters, while no media market is immune to erosion of press freedom, resistance is possible. Recent events in Europe are illustrative. In Slovakia, public outrage over the politically motivated double murder of an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová, forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign, and has his successor, Peter Pellegrini, walking a public-relations tightrope.
Hungary, too, has experienced its own, albeit tamer, version of journalistic pushback. According to a recent study by the European Journalism Center, despite deepening government control over how the media operates, investigative reporting remains active, and “abuses of the taxpayers’ money are regularly exposed.”
To be sure, the media are under attack like never before, and not only from fake news and polarizing presidents. The slaying of nine journalists in Kabul on April 30, in back-to-back suicide bombings that killed at least 25 people, marked the deadliest day for journalists in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and added to a grim global tally. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 1,000 journalists have been murdered around the world in the last 15 years, and only a handful of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
And yet fresh glimmers of hope are multiplying. Around the world, journalists and their supporters are fighting back in encouraging ways.
Consider online censorship. While governments from China to Russia routinely block or filter access to the Internet, half of the world’s population is now connected — a 20% increase in only five years.
In Sudan, journalists are using this connectivity to save lives. Last year, when the government refused to inform the public about a devastating cholera outbreak, journalists with Radio Dabanga, working with doctors and nurses, used the WhatsApp messaging service to share information about prevention and treatment.
Even in a violent and divided country like Somalia, the Internet is being used for good; increased streaming speeds have kept members of the country’s sizable diaspora connected with friends and family, and have enabled meaningful dialogue across communities.
Legal norms are also moving in the right direction. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of countries with freedom of information laws increased from 90 to 112.
This commitment was deepened last month when the European Union adopted a new law to protect whistle-blowers from prosecution. In a statement, authorities said they hoped the measure would be a boon to investigative journalists by protecting sources who report violations of European law.
Where fewer legal protections are in place, journalists are becoming more creative. In the Philippines, where independent news organizations have become targets of slander by politicians and online trolls, reporters are turning the tables with devastating effect. For example, in a recent series of reports identifying people making threats against the media, the news website Rappler uncovered a network of trolls tied directly to government insiders.
Finally, journalists are working to improve the diversity of their own industry. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, one media organization created a database with the contact details of thousands of female experts who are available for media commentary and analysis. This simple exercise has led to a dramatic increase in the percentage of female experts appearing in the press.
These are just a few of the bright spots we should be highlighting during this year’s observance of World Press Freedom Day. Every day, courageous men and women (and sometimes even children) around the world continue to brave the odds to bring us the news. We all benefit from their dedication, and we all have an obligation to honor their successes, not just their sacrifices.