International Press Freedom Day

This blog post investigates the roots of World Press Freedom Day and provides information on the significance of freedom of press. Human rights violations around the world, making journalists victims of undemocratic policies and conflicts are also given as examples to emphasize the consequences of lacking the free environment for freedom of expression and the right to be informed.

3rd of May is chosen as World Press Freedom Day to signify the anniversary of Windhoek Declaration, a set of press freedom principles created by African newspaper journalists in 1991. It calls for media pluralism and independence while emphasizing the importance of an independent, pluralistic, and free press for democracy and development. This right is continuously evaluated, also by UN agencies, within the context of democracy-authoritarianism axis and political violence.

Freedom of press is rooted in freedom of expression, also protected by Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” On the other hand, freedom of press also provides the insurance for access to information as informed citizens are vital in a democracy. This can only be guaranteed with a free legal and political environment giving opportunity to multitude of media channels, providing information and opinions in a wide spectrum, representing different groups in a community.

Is press free?

Freedom of press is one of the main criteria evaluating counties on the axis of democracy vs autocracies as it is typical for autocratic states to control media. Owning major organs and controlling the finances of other outlets is frequently observed as the main control mechanisms, which is also usually nontransparent. The viewer or reader is often uninformed or misinformed about the ownership of the outlet, leading them to have an illusion of diversity, when in reality the government or beneficiaries of current policies hold the control over what the public is allowed to learn or see.

The political environment of pressure, and threat of legal or social punishment lead journalists to self-censor, in the contexts of the topics they cover, and what they present about the given topic. Official censorship, on the other hand, works as a direct form of the government’s control over the content which can occur by legal documents banning certain topics, names of individuals or institutions, or specific events. It again causes deception of the consumers of the information or lack of information.

Are journalists free?

According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, 70% percent of the countries evaluated do not have a favorable environment for press. The index uses criteria in political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety, when evaluating the freedom of press in 180 countries in total. Top three countries with the best environment for journalism are Norway, Ireland and Denmark while the worst ranked countries are North Korea, China, and Vietnam. In the initial seven months of conflict in Gaza, over 100 journalists and media personnel, predominantly Palestinian, have lost their lives, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists.

Freedom of press is especially crucial within the context of conflicts, guaranteeing the atrocities being heard by the public and providing historical and sometimes legal evidence. Press members, along with humanitarian workers, are under the protection of International Law because of their roles in documents such as Geneva Conventions and UN Resolutions.

The Committe to Protect Journalists documented that as of the 1st of December 2023, there were 320 journalists kept in prisons, which is the second highest in the history of the institution. China with 44, Myanmar with 43, and Belarus with 23 journalists, ranked the highest in the census. Overall, the crime category charged against the imprisoned journalist the most is anti-state crimes and political journalists suffered from this the most. Physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, food and water shortages, and inadequate medical care are typical for journalists who are kept in China, Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, and Vietnam.

A Continuing Struggle for Democracy

International Press Freedom Day serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for media freedom and the protection of journalists worldwide. Rooted in principles of democracy and human rights, press freedom is essential for fostering informed societies and holding governments accountable. However, challenges persist, with many countries facing restrictions on media independence, censorship, and threats to journalists’ safety. Efforts to uphold press freedom must continue, supported by international organizations, governments, and civil society, to ensure that the voices of journalists are heard and respected.