May 3 saw an overlapping of events in which the media was feted: the celebration of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the yearly observation of the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner brings together American politicians, the journalists who cover them and the Hollywood actors who play politicians and journalists on television in a glittering dinner in Washington, DC. World Press Freedom Day is a 20-year-old initiative of Unesco meant to highlight the fundamental principles of press freedom and commemorate those journalists who have lost their lives just for doing their jobs.
Both events superficially invert the microphone, drawing attention to the important watchdog role the media plays in ostensibly keeping a check on those in power. However, their coincidental confluence this year demonstrates that the need to promote and protect freedom of expression is more important than ever.
Freedom of expression and opinion is, of course, a basic human right. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasises that this right includes the freedom to “…seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media… ” The notion that the ability to ‘seek, receive and impart information’ should be restricted in any way seems antiquated in a world where Twitter, Facebook and YouTube enable the ‘Selfie Generation’ to overshare to an extreme degree. And yet, since the beginning of 2014, 14 journalists have already been killed pursuing this right.
The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that in the last 12 months, 70 reporters have been killed on the job. More than 1,000 media workers have been killed since 1992. While 36 per cent of these overall deaths happened in the course of armed conflict, 44 per cent died while covering politics. This is a shocking statistic: reporting on the drama and intrigues of those trying to formulate and run a government should not be more dangerous than reporting from a war zone.
However, the loss of life is not the only risk that journalists encounter in pursuit of press freedom. Arrests, kidnappings and other harassment are depressingly common. In the United States last year, the Department of Justice secretly subpoenaed the telephone records of several reporters and news editors in an effort to stem national security leaks. More sinister, perhaps, is the ongoing trial of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt who are accused of being members of the now-declasse Muslim Brotherhood. Most recently, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was taken hostage for several days in eastern Ukraine in an apparent effort to stop him from reporting on the activities of pro-Russian separatists in the region.
What is, perhaps, most notable about all of these unpleasant episodes is just how much we know about them — which, ironically, can be attributed directly to press freedom. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the US National Security Agency may have demonstrated that Big Brother is alive and well in the US, but given the importance of freedom of expression in American culture, there has been no shortage of reporting on the US government’s shadier activities.
But there are dozens — if not hundreds — of other reporters, photographers and bloggers who are being detained, beaten and killed on a daily basis in pursuit of freedom of expression, who remain unknown and anonymous except to their frightened family members. Technological advances and the social media make it easy to take up their cause and widely disseminate information about their ill-treatment — if we would only prioritise doing so. Every day should be World Press Freedom Day.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2014.