Political society

The Fiji Times » Stand up for freedom – Journalists – society’s true unsung heroes

On Tuesday this week, Fiji joined the world in celebrating World Press Freedom Day.

This year’s theme was “Journalism Under Digital Siege”, aiming to highlight the many ways in which digitally mediated surveillance and attacks endanger journalists and journalism.

The United Nations says surveillance could easily expose information gathered by journalists and undermine the principle of protecting sources, which is universally seen as a prerequisite for media freedom and enshrined in UN resolutions.

“Surveillance can also harm the safety of journalists by disclosing sensitive private information, which could be used for arbitrary judicial harassment or attacks,” the UN says.

In line with this year’s theme, there is a growing global agenda to demand more transparency regarding how internet companies exploit citizens’ privacy data.

In this regard, there have been many global conversations about how this data could inform predictive models and artificial intelligence, and enable the amplification of misinformation and hate in society.

This underpins the 2021 Windhoek+30 statement which called on tech companies to “work to provide transparency with respect to their human and automated systems”.

The most significant event so far this year has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This year’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day is therefore an opportunity to spare a thought for journalists who operate under authoritarian regimes, under restrictive laws and in a climate of fear.

The Vatican News reported this week that the Pope paid tribute to journalists who “lost their lives in the service they offer covering world events for us”, recalling that last year 47 journalists were killed and more of 350 imprisoned worldwide.

The pope thanked the journalists “who courageously inform us about the scourges of humanity”.

CNN stressed that the war in Ukraine, including the murder of journalists in the war zone and anti-journalism restrictions and prosecutions in Russia, should be at the forefront of everyone’s concerns. The same goes for the multitude of acts of violence, arrests and threats against the lives of media professionals in other countries.

In mid-April, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine reported that at least 20 journalists from around the world had been killed during Russia’s seven-week war in the country.

The union said the war spared no one and cost the lives of “soldiers, civilians, media workers”.

Threats to the freedom of journalists and media workers are increasing every day.

From corruption to climate change, human rights abuses and the COVID-19 pandemic, they face increased politicization of their work and persistent attempts to silence them.

But threats, atrocities and unfair treatment against journalists and the media they represent do not occur only in authoritarian regimes.

They also occur in countries with democratic regimes, which have regular elections, written constitutions and human rights laws. In fact, over the past decade, the state of media freedom has deteriorated worldwide.

And despite democratic and legal guarantees, we find that the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is often attacked in one way or another.

In Fiji, we find this to be true. We hear comments that denigrate journalists and the work they do. But the source of this aggression is not necessarily the members of the public who consume the news we broadcast daily, but the politicians we elect to the legislature to defend our very rights and freedoms.

It is disturbing to hear politicians make consistent and explicit attempts to stifle the voice of criticism and reason.

Nothing is ever done through a direct and visible physical threat, but subtly through laws and policies enacted through legal means. Strategically designed to hamper the work of journalists as they are unable to effectively hold leaders accountable.

Media outlets and journalists are also victimized when political leaders make more nuanced efforts to compromise their independence.

Independent watchdog Freedom House says some common methods used in countries considered democracies to subvert media independence include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists.

“Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative government contracts, favorable regulatory rulings, and preferential access to state information.

The goal is to make the press serve those in power rather than the public,” says Freedom House.

This sad erosion of press freedom is influenced by what experts see as a global decline in democracy itself and a breakdown of democratic institutions and principles.

But despite these threats and interference, journalists and the media are encouraged not to be afraid.

For if they fail in their duty as purveyors of truth and defenders of freedom and justice, then democracy weakens and the people perish.

In a statement, National Federation Party leader Prof. Biman Prasad urged journalists not to be afraid and to amplify the truth and the voice of the people at all times.

He added that it was extremely important that the media be impartial.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on World Press Freedom Day said “to highlight the essential work of journalists and other media professionals who seek transparency and accountability in those in power, often at great personal risk”.

May 3 is not just a day to attend cocktail parties and toast over a beer. It is a day that reminds governments, politicians and civil servants of the need to uphold their commitment to press freedom.

In addition, it is also a day of reflection between media professionals on issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

Despite frequent attacks on journalists and the media, citizens and the communities that depend on them must believe that moments of threats and violence cannot stay that way forever.

Experience has shown that press freedom can bounce back from long periods of oppression, however adverse and relentless.

So when opportunities arise, we must desire and demand democratic freedoms, and ensure that they are protected and defended at the cost of appeal.

A litany of lies and moments of suppression can be swept under the rug and forgotten, but not the moments of truth and justice, when their time comes.

Today, 30 years after the creation of World Press Freedom Day, the historical link established between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains relevant today, just as it was at the time of its signature.

Why?

The answer is simple, unlike lies and mistakes, the truth can never be extinguished.