We often take press freedom for granted, especially in western countries. It’s a given that journalists will write what they like, and though we might think some are biased or partisan, it occurs to very few people to argue they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. But, around May 3rd, it is important for us to take stock and think, even if only for a moment, about all those journalists who have given up their freedom, and often their lives, speaking truth to power.
The World Press Freedom Day was first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, a response to the call by many African journalists who, in 1991, produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media freedom and independence. For Libel, this day is very important. We are, after all, the journalistic arm or an organisation dedicated to global freedom. We also have many friends and colleagues in countries that do not benefit from such protections, and we worry for them. Last year alone, 262 journalists were imprisoned around the world just for doing their jobs, and at least 46 others were killed for the same reason. The suppression of the media affects everyone in society, because without the press most of us are not truly connected to non-local events.
Since then, the internet has exploded, and many people prematurely declared the war for a free press won – after all, journalists could now write for their audience, regardless of whether careful editors would print. But this amazing development also brought with it a serious blow to journalism – namely, an insane amount of competition. People started to digest their news through social media, and suddenly it didn’t matter how well respected the publication was. People wanted constant content. Printed publications started to go out of business like potato farms during the Irish Great Famine of the 1840s. With so much difficulty standing out, revenue had to be attracted from somewhere, and this lead to a situation where, today, companies buy out large sections to write articles, or pay for content that leaves them in a good light. While this may be a necessary response from the point of view of keeping the papers operational, it also undermines the independence of the press and makes it harder for the readers to identify the difference between good journalism and bad. After all, like George Orwell said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
So how do we honour these journalists, and show our solidarity with them? How do me support them in their quest for truth, and weed out the partisan pundits and fake news that now dominate much of the news space? Well, firstly, you could donate. Donate as much as you can, ideally on a monthly recurring basis, and buy subscriptions. Even if you don’t read them daily, respectable publications need your help. Publications need money so that they can pay for investigative journalists to find out real news, so that they can hire fact-checkers to make sure the content they provide is correct. They need money to keep their offices open, so that someone can call in with a tip, and to hire graphic designers so that the content that you read is engaging and understandable. There are so many reasons to donate, and so many reputable recipients for those donations. You can donate directly to your local press, or safeguard journalists all over the world by donating to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Secondly, you can stand up for the free press everywhere. When you hear someone attack “the mainstream media” or read that reporters have been incarcerated in countries like turkey, make your voice heard, and tell your friends to do the same. The only way to stop demagogues from undermining this check-and-balance on their power is to let them know we are watching and will not take these attacks on the free press lightly.
And thirdly, you can write. If you feel no one is saying anything, say it yourself. Write about what you want, be it kittens or dictators, and don’t let anyone question your integrity for doing it. Sure, be precise and informed on the subject you’re writing about, but also very importantly, be free. Blocking the press is generally the precursor to dictatorship, so the more “free” journalists there are, the less we have to worry about someone taking away our freedoms.