On 3rd May, World Press Freedom Day 2021, Jessica Salter reflects on where we are – and what needs to be done – to realise global freedom of the press.
In 2020, at least 274 journalists were imprisoned according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This was the largest number of journalists reported to be imprisoned in one year since the group started collecting data in the early 1990s.
During a year when many of us were restricted to our homes, consuming every piece of news we could get a hold of surrounding the pandemic and relying on the news media for updates, many journalists across the world were risking their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives, just to report the truth.
In early 2020, Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi ‘disappeared’ after reporting on the situation in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Both citizen journalists had been uploading videos to YouTube and Twitter, which are banned in China, to report on the outbreak of the epidemic.
As a result of China’s tight censorship laws blocking foreign news sites, social media surveillance and the state’s hostility towards journalists and activists, the country is considered unsafe for journalists and is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Where a rank of 1 is the most free and rank 180 is the least free.
Founded in 1985, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is one of the world’s leading NGOs in the defense and promotion of freedom of information. The World Press Freedom Index, published annually since 2002, has spotlighted the extent of – or lack of – press freedoms in countries across the world. The Index has effectively provoked governments to change their media policies as the Index is increasingly used by bodies such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank in determining the allocation of development aid. Their reliance on the Index has helped to increase the attention that governments pay to freedom of information in their countries.
Why is press freedom important?
As we know, knowledge is power. And there can be no freedom without knowledge. Freedom of expression is a human right and in a journalist’s day to day work, they are exercising their right to free speech and informing the public on matters of interest. One of the most important roles of the media is to hold those in power responsible for their actions. Journalists must be free to inform the public and criticise governments and public institutions without fear of prosecution.
Press freedom is most at risk during periods of conflict and instability as governments seek to control narratives and influence populations. This is reflected in the Press Freedom Index 2021 where some countries saw their ranking decrease as their governments limited press freedoms and jailed journalists in 2020. This includes countries such as Belarus, where the re-election of the country’s long time president, Alexander Lukashenko sparked mass protests and the censorship of opposition journalists, and Ethiopia, where the outbreak of conflict in the Tigray region between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Federal Government has put journalists in danger as they have been detained, faced threats and even attacked.
Even countries that have ranked in the higher end of the World Press Freedom Index 2021 have in the past year exhibited populist hostility and vilification towards public figures, experts and journalists. In the US where, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker, a record number of assaults against journalists (415) and arrests of members of the media (137) has occurred as result of protests and heightened polarisation in the country. Also, dozens of journalists were attacked by supporters of extremist and conspiracy theory believers during protests against pandemic restrictions in Germany which stripped the country of its “good” classification on the Index to “fairly good”.
Through the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the RSF reports a “dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage” and the Covid-19 pandemic has been used by governments to prevent journalists from reporting and uncovering key information. The question is, will this have a lasting impact on press freedom globally? Will the damage of pandemic be used as an excuse by governments to restrict press freedoms?
Now, more than ever, we need to hold governments accountable and advocate for global press freedom.
The World Press Freedom Index 2021 is available online.
Jessica Salter is an External Communications Officer at SOAS, and part-time student on the MA Media in Development programme.