Today (May 3) is World Press Freedom Day, declared as such 25 years ago by the United Nations to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom.
It’s an opportunity to take stock of press freedom throughout the world – not great on much of the planet – and to draw attention to the ongoing battle to maintain an independent press. It’s also an occasion to mark the deaths of those journalists killed on the job.
While the press in Canada is most threatened by corporate takeovers – killing competition and stifling the range of debate that threatens the status quo – the dangers are much more visceral in much of the rest of the world.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranks Canada at 18th on the list of 180 countries, sandwiched between Luxembourg and Australia. Not surprisingly, the list is headed by Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland, countries that often top the list of progressive traits. Down among the bottom dwellers are the likes of North Korea, Syria, China, Sudan, Somalia and Iran.
Not uncoincidentally, some of those at the bottom of the list are countries where journalists are more likely to be killed or imprisoned.
At least 81 reporters were killed on the job in 2017, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Some were murdered, some caught up in bomb attacks and others killed in crossfire incidents. More than 250 journalists were in prison last year.
The 2017 death figures were the lowest in a decade – down from 93 in 2016, for instance – but other forms of violence and harassment against media workers have skyrocketed.
As with the journalists killed, the incidents are more rife in places like Mexico (147th on the list, and home to the most deaths) and the war zones of Afghanistan (118), Iraq (160) and Syria (177).
The situation underscores the need for something like World Press Freedom Day. More broadly, the press is working in an environment where governments and corporate interests are working hard to keep the public in the dark, preferring their power go unchecked.
With that in mind, this year’s freedom day theme is “Keeping power in check: media, justice and the rule of law.”
By and large, journalists everywhere struggle with political infrastructures seemingly dedicated to keeping the public in the dark. Openness is an anathema to many in the political ranks, elected officials and administrators alike, who seek to keep information to themselves. This sad reality has spawned organized efforts by public groups, including journalists, to make government more transparent .
Of course, such obfuscation is more clearly evident in larger governments (and, in keeping with current trends, larger businesses whose executives have a vested interest in hiding the truth). This is not to say that local governments are bastions of openness. Given their size and relatively lighter agendas, however, there are fewer opportunities to impose blackouts on the press and, by extension, their readers.
Transparency is crucial to ensuring that elected representatives are politically accountable, an ideal check on power. Access to information is the cornerstone of democracy.
Newspapers, this one included, would have governments lean toward the other, more open side. Events such as those marked by groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression have shown the perils of doing otherwise.