As journalists and government officials gathered in Ghana for World Press Freedom Day’s 25th observance, attention was turned to the myriad pressures and challenges confronting the profession worldwide, and how official and state-sponsored hostility toward the press is threatening democracy.
But signs of journalistic resilience are also emerging.
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 fiancée, 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 Centre, 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. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 1,000 journalists have been murdered around the world in the past 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 per cent 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 sizeable 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.
Where fewer legal protections are in place, journalists are becoming more creative. In the Philippines, where independent news organisations 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 organisation 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 honour their successes, not just their sacrifices.
Leon Willems is director of Free Press Unlimited. © Project Syndicate.