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.
This is article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 and it is one of the fundamental rights of everyone on this planet.
We (…) declare that, consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
And this is the first paragraph of the so-called Windhoek Declaration. It was declared on May 3 on the last day of a five-day-seminar of the UNESCO called “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press”, held in Windhoek/Namibia. Two years later in 1993 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared this day as the World Press Freedom Day. Since then it stands to raise awareness of the importance of the freedom of press and to uphold the right to freedom of expression which is based on article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948.
The current situation by Reporters Without Borders
Today’s situation of press freedom is severe due to different situations threatening journalism’s present and future. The non-profit NGO Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters sans frontières (RSF), reports that 360 journalists, citizens journalists or media assistants are currently imprisoned and 11 killed in this year of 2020 already in various countries like Iraq and Syria but also in Nigeria and Paraguay for instance.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire says that “we are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” and that “the coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”
The World Press Freedom Index
The World Press Freedom Index, published annually by the RSF was just released recently on April 21 and declares that “the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.”
Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Finland or Denmark again are on top of the list of the 180 countries. On the bottom there isn’t much of a change with North Korea (-1 at 180th) taking over Turkmenistan (+1 at 179th) as the worst-ranked country and Eritrea (178th) as Africa’s bottom of the pile. Negative developments were also noticed in Haiti (-21 at 83th) for instance due to an ongoing political crisis and violent protests with journalists being attacked and one killed in 2019.
A very positive and huge leap up to the top on the other hand can be seen with the Maldives (+19 at 79th) and Malaysia (+22 at 101) “thanks to the beneficial effects of changes of government through the polls.” the RSF says. Welcoming changes were also observed in Sudan (+16 at 159th) after recent events in terms of the revolution of 2018 which eventually ended in the removal of Omar al-Bashir. The situation in Germany (+2 at 11th) improved a little bit due a decline in the numbers of attacks against journalists.
Main Global Crisis
The RSF sees five main “crises” which have an impact on free press. A geopolitical crisis with countries like China (177th) or Saudi Arabia (+2 at 170th) as well Russia (149th) who show no intention in opening up for a free press: “Leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian or populist regimes make every effort to suppress information and impose their visions of a world without pluralism and independent journalism.”
Due to a technological crisis in terms of digitalisation journalism is facing new challenges. “Propaganda, advertising, rumour and journalism are in direct competition” and “the growing confusion between commercial, political and editorial content has destabilised democratic guarantees of freedom of opinion and expression” the RSF states.
A crisis of democracy in countries with elected leaders like Donald Trump in the United States (+3 at 45th) or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (-2 at 107th) denigration against journalists is continuing with the RSF speaking of a “growing hostility and even hatred towards journalists”.
Also a general lack of trust can be observed in many countries worldwide by people seeing the established media as them publishing contaminated content and misleading the public. This led to an increasing number of violence against journalists of the public’s anger in countries like Ecuador (-1 at 98th) as well as in France (-2 at 32nd).
Finally the digital transformation meant a huge loss in money in the last years with news organisations restructuring and many journalists losing their jobs. As the RSF reports, “newspapers that are in a much weaker economic situation are naturally less able to resist pressure.”
The COVID-19 crisis
The current situation of the COVID-19 crisis is another burden for freedom of press globally. With China and Iran (-3 at 173rd) censoring their media intensively during the outbreak journalists see themselves under an increasing pressure in the current light of reporting about one of the most important events of recent history. In Hungary (-2 at 89th) prime minister Victor Orban can now rule by decree and passed a law that leads up to five years in prison for false information regarding the coronavirus. Generally the coronavirus lead to closed borders and public life like public gatherings/demonstrations or practice of religion being limited or even prohibited. In the end this also creates a more difficult situation for journalists around the world.
It has yet to be seen how a) the COVID-19 crisis will eventually affect the media and b) how the media can cope with and conquer the current global threats for the next decade. The latter will probably be determined in these very months during the corona crisis since this is the ultimate global test to the freedom of press, speech and expression.
It is now the time when we must hold governments accountable to their actions and stand as the antipode to suppression and fake news. It is the time to be the observer and deliver science based and correct information for people to have the chance to stay safe and survive this severe situation. And it is maybe the very first time that the whole world, 7.7 billion people in all continents and countries, are united under one common threat of the coronavirus.
With this common denominator news organisations, journalists, media assistants and everyone involved have the chance to defend their freedom and set an example for future generations of media representatives.