Christos Anesti! While many Orthodox Christians around the world recently celebrated Pascha, few of us are aware of another commemoration. On May 3rd, the international community honored World Press Freedom Day, which was designated by the United Nations in 1991.
What is World Press Freedom Day?
“The rights to life and to liberty and integrity and security of person and also to freedom of expression are fundamental human rights that are recognized and guaranteed by international conventions and instruments.”
I must admit I am a little embarrassed because, despite working as a communications assistant, I first heard of World Press Freedom Day was when I was approached to write this blog post. As I began researching, I realized how much we are affected, every day, by the wealth of media and information that journalists bring to us and just how much risk they take to tell the stories.
Think about that last thing you posted on Twitter this morning or about the article you shared on Facebook last evening. Now imagine your screen going blank; your account being deactivated or flagged. Picture the authorities knocking on your door just because you made a somewhat charged comment about one of the political candidates running for president. Imagine you are a journalist detained for speaking your mind as you traveled on assignment, or for exposing the truth about a powerful person or company?
While, for the most part, we – people in the Western world – are at liberty to express ourselves freely, what we take for granted as a basic human right just doesn't exist for many people. This restriction disempowers people and prevents social development.
According to the United Nations, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freedom of Expression is a fundamental human right:
"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."
For some, the issue is truly a matter of life and death. Reporters without Borders reports on the severity of the problem:
In 2013 alone, 71 journalists were killed, 826 were arrested, 2160 journalists threatened or physically attacked, 87 journalists kidnapped, 77 journalists had to flee their country, 6 media assistants killed, 39 netizens and citizen-journalists killed AND 127 bloggers and netizens arrested.
Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize
In 1993, in conjunction with World Press Freedom day, UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) established the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The prize was named after Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza, who sought to expose the drug mafia for the havoc they were wreaking in his country. His hope was for the drug lords to be extradited to the United States for prosecution since Colombia's own institutions could do little to handle the problems the cartels had created throughout the country. In 1986, he received Colombia's National Journalism award for defending press freedom. On December 17, 1986 he was gunned down in front of his office building. His assassination was the first in a series of journalists throughout Colombia, making it the most dangerous country in Latin America to work as a journalist.
Each year since first established, the prize is awarded to a person (or organization) that has made an extraordinary contribution to the pursuit and defense of press freedom, especially when done at high risk.
2016 World Press Freedom Prize Recipient
Of course, freedom of press is not only affected by drug and criminal organizations looking to hide their activities. In most cases, national and local governments are the perpetrators. Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist and radio host, currently sits in prison. Ismavilova was arrested in 2014 on charges of “incitement to suicide.” In 2015 she was sentenced to seven and half years of prison under charges of “embezzlement and tax evasion.” Her imprisonment was orchestrated by the government in retaliation for writing a series of articles revealing state-level corruption of Azerbaijan's first family. Azerbaijan's media is monitored strictly by its government. While the government itself never commented on the reports, two of which were declared best investigative reports of 2010 and 2011 by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ms. Ismayilova was blackmailed, humiliated, harassed and arrested on false charges. In addition to this, Azerbaijan's National Assembly adopted amendments to laws that would protect such corruption and offer ex-Presidents and spouses lifelong legal immunity. Ms. Ismayilova’s brave decision to expose the truth, despite the hostile climate, is what earned her 2016’s World Press Freedom Prize.
Reporters Without Borders and The World Press Freedom Index
While governments and criminal organizations often hinder freedom of press, there are still other threats, as well. Terrorists, corporations, and power-hungry individuals also influence press freedom.
What is the World Press Freedom Index? Reporters Without Borders is an international nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of information and freedom of press. Their yearly-published World Press Freedom Index is compiled to be used as a standard for ranking 180 countries by the freedom it allows its journalists. It also includes statistics of the level of media freedom violations in each part of the world.
Which nations have the highest levels of freedom of expression? The top ten are all located in Europe, with Finland ranking at the top of the list. The Americas actually fell behind Africa this year with the United States at #42 for 2016. Whistle-blowing continues to be the main reason for debate in the US; journalists are still not protected by a federal "shield law" that would guarantee their right not to reveal their sources and other confidential work-related information.
What of the far end of the spectrum (complete censorship of news and any journalistic activity being illegal)? Incidentally, Azerbaijan ranks 163 this year. Overall, the Index shows there is a downward trend around the world, even in what might be considered “the media age”, where humans are so connected. What happens to society when information stops flowing freely? May 3rd reminds us that governing bodies around the world must continue to renew their commitment to press freedom and treat professionals in the field with respect. It is a day to support journalists and also a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives trying to bring the truth to the public.
For more information on World Press Freedom Day, visit: