New Delhi: World Press Freedom Day was started by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 in accordance with recommendations by UNESCO’s General Conference. This particular date, 3 May, was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek — the declaration of free press principles put together by newspaper journalists in Africa during a UNESCO seminar called Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991. The journalists’ statement called for an independent and pluralistic media across the world. It saw a free press as essential to democracy and a fundamental human right.
This special day is meant to be a reminder to governments about their need to commit to a free press. It also serves as a day for media professionals to reflect on issues of press freedom, professional ethics and their role.
The theme for 2020’s World Press Freedom Day is Journalism without Fear or Favour, an idea that becomes especially significant during the Covid-19 crisis, when the press has been declared an essential service, and journalists deemed a vital part of the frontline battle against coronavirus.
The Netherlands was to host this year’s conference that was slated to happen in April at the World Forum in The Hague, but the event has been postponed to October for the time being due to the pandemic. But in India, the celebrations will take place virtually through a talk show about Reporting in the Times of Covid-19, that will aim to discuss the issue of safety for media workers, the importance of an independent press during such a health crisis and what professionalism means at a time when information is primarily sought online.
Previous year’s campaigns have revolved around the role of the media in democracy and elections in the time of disinformation, the intersection of media with law, how to ensure gender equality and safety in media in the digital age and the role of the media in advancing peace and inclusivity in societies.
UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize
Apart from its yearly campaigns and conferences, the UNESCO also proactively plays a role on this day through the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The honor was named after Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated by drug gangs, right outside his newspaper El Espectador’s office in Colombia in 1986.
Since 1997, the award has been awarded to facilitate one press member who has withstood media oppression and danger and been fearlessly committed to the cause of press freedom. Every year. a winner is selected by a jury consisting of 14 media personalities, and is conferred the honour by the Director-General of UNESCO. In the year 2019, two media personalities were awarded — Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone from Myanmar. The Reuters journalists, who were serving seven-year prison sentences at the time of being awarded, were arrested in the city of Yangon in 2017 while reporting human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s state of Rakhine.
India drops to rank 142 in 2020 World Press Freedom Index
For the last decade, the annual World Press Freedom Index, produced annually by the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières), has also come to be seen as an important watchdog to track the role of different governments and their response to press freedom. The independent group surveys the state of the media in 180 countries and territories, and records parameters such as the number of journalists killed, imprisoned, put under pressure or assaulted, apart from more qualitative reports on the track record of different governments. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index was released in April, and revealed that India has dropped to rank 142, two points below its 2019 rank.
The report attributed India’s rank to the Narendra Modi government “tightening” its grip on the media, and pressuring it to “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”. It also reported coordinated social media hate campaigns against journalists reporting on issues that “annoy Hindutva followers”, criminal prosecutions to gag journalists critical of authorities and police violence against journalists, and the lack of press freedom in Kashmir.
The best ranks were given to Scandinavian countries like Norway, Finland and Denmark, with Norway in particular maintaining its top rank because of its government’s cognisance of the importance of free press in a democracy. It has recently also formed a special commission to look into the issue of freedom of speech, safeguarding journalists and curbing fake news and hate speech.
At the bottom of the list was North Korea, for leader Kim Jong-Un’s totalitarian regime that has kept its citizens in a “state of ignorance”, and even sends citizens to concentration camps if caught viewing, reading or listening to content provided by a media outlet based outside the country. The RSF report also was critical of Jong-Un’s regime for maintaining that the country’s Covid-19 cases are at zero, while his capital appeals for help to the international community in battling the virus, along with China whose government has come under fire for enabling the spread of the virus through its censorship and continued suppression of the media.
Press freedom in popular culture
The issue of press freedom has often found its way in popular culture as well, with Hollywood movies such as Spotlight (2015), based on the real-life story of an investigative team of reporters from the Boston Globe who uncovered a history of systemic sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church. The Post (2017), starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, was based on the role of the American publication the Washington Post in publishing the controversial Pentagon Papers that indicted the US government for its role in the Vietnam war.
The German movie Die Spiegel Affaire (The Spiegel Affair, 2014) explored the political scandal that erupted after writer Der Spiegel published an article about Germany’s armed forces, while Velvet Revolution, is a 2017 documentary by filmmaker Nupur Basu that explores hardships faced by female journalists from all over the world reporting in areas of conflict and about controversial issues.
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