Every year on May 3rd, the international community celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, and defend the media from attacks on their independence. At the same time, World Press Day also pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
National celebrations of this event take place each year throughout the globe. UNESCO leads the worldwide celebration by identifying the global thematic and organizing the main event in different parts of world every year. The international day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a recommendation adopted at the 26th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991. This was in response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.
There are celebrations on every continent and region throughout the world. Several of the countries in the Middle East are also holding their own celebrations, including Jordan, Israel and Qatar. Each conference is centered on a theme related to press freedom, including good governance, media coverage of terrorism, impunity and the role of media in post-conflict countries.
Part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the freedom of expression, as stated in Article 19. Yet this is not a right that is respected in all nations around the world. In fact, according to Reporters Without Borders in 2016, Iran is still one of the world’s five biggest prisons for media personnel and is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
“Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are non-existent in Iran under the mullahs’ regime. Not only does the regime severely clamp down on journalists for reporting on subjects considered sensitive by the mullahs, it even goes so far as arresting and torturing to death dissident bloggers, such as Satar Beheshti,” said Shahin Gobadi, part of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said in May 2016.
Part of the celebration of World Press Day includes the awarding of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which was created to honor Guillermo Cano Isaiah, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota on December 17, 1986. His writings had offended the Colombian drug barons.
A survey by Freedom House, a US-based human rights organization, highlighted growing concerns over efforts by governments around the world to clamp down on media and dissent.
“Political leaders and other partisan forces in many democracies – including the United States, Poland, the Philippines, and South Africa – attacked the credibility of independent media and fact-based journalism, rejecting the traditional watchdog role of the press in free societies,” said Jennifer Dunham, who headed the research.
In their 2016 study of 199 countries, the group concluded that just 13% of the world’s population enjoys a “free press” where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.
The report also noted that press freedom was in modest decline in the United States before Trump took office, due in part to the industry’s financial woes and news organizations’ increasingly partisan positions.
The Freedom House report, which was released on Friday, echoed a similar survey released this week by France-based Reporters Without Borders, which said press freedom is facing serious threats in 72 countries, downgrading the rankings of the United States, Britain and others.
“When politicians lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Such comments suggest a hostility toward the fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, especially the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions.”
The group also noted that the attacks on the United States media can have the effect of giving authoritarian regimes a green light to crack down on their own countries’ independent press.
“A greater danger is that the Unites States will stop being a model and aspirational standard for other countries. Protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide; indeed, it is a cornerstone of global democracy,” said the Freedom House report.
China, Ethiopia, Iran and Syria “are among the many staunchly autocratic countries where physical and online monitoring is a fact of life for journalists, intended in part to intimidate the media and suppress critical coverage,” noted the report.
Terrorism also plays a part in the reality of press freedom. This is due in part to surveillance laws that are designed to protect their citizens and fight terrorism.
“Many major democracies, including Britain, France and Germany, have recently passed laws that tip the balance in favor of eavesdroppers and lack of sufficient oversight mechanisms and safeguards against abuse,” according to the report.
The worst scores for press freedom went to North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the top scores went to Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Overall, the global averages fell to new lows.