Freedom of speech is something we tend to take for granted until it is taken from us.
When 12 people were gunned down at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year, shock and outrage rippled around the world. There was an outpouring of anger and messages of solidarity; ‘Je suis Charlie’ trended almost immediately on social media sites.
This brazen attack, aimed at silencing the satirical magazine, cut to the heart of what it means to live in a free and open society. Overnight everyone was talking about press freedom and media security.
But over a year later, have things improved, are journalists and media workers safer?
Dying for the right to write
According to Reporters Without Borders 110 journalists were killed in 2015, along with a further 27 citizen journalists and seven media workers. Everyday hundreds more journalists, bloggers and writers face intimidation, harassment and imprisonment, simply for doing their jobs.
Iraq and Syria remain two of the most dangerous places but in an alarming trend, two-thirds of the deaths occurred in countries ‘at peace’. The 2015 January attack on Charlie Hebdo made France one of the deadliest countries for journalists.
Shrinking public sphere
Media freedom means more than protecting the physical safety of journalists and media personnel. It also requires a diverse range of voices with independence from commercial and political interference, sound legal frameworks and open access to information.
Reporters Without Borders found a ‘deep and disturbing’ decline in media freedom in 2015. They noted many reasons for this including increasingly authoritarian tendencies in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, tighter government control of state-owned media and precarious security in places such as Libya and Burundi.
Even in fairly open and democratic countries they noted a decline in independent news coverage, a rise of ‘oligarchs’ who own many of the media outlets and world leaders who are ‘developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism.’
This attitude is summed up in a speech by New Zealand journalist David Fisher, who talks about a time when he could pick up the phone and ask any public servant a question and receive a straight answer. Today he fills in hundreds of Official Information Act (OIA) requests to get anything from the Government and is forced to wait while these are vetted, redacted and withheld by ministers and officials wary of political ‘surprises’.
In New Zealand, we smugly feel that press freedom and freedom of information are healthy and well (we ranked fifth on the World Press Freedom Index). As a Kiwi writer and blogger I have certainly never felt the need to use an alias or temper my opinions for fear of reprimand from authorities. I do not work in secret, or conceal personal details for fear of them being used against me.
But with just one independent newspaper, less and less investigative journalism and complaints from journalists and bloggers, of obstruction, occasional harassment and legal devices used to withhold, conceal and manipulate the truth, we could do better.
And we’re certainly not alone, Amnesty International argues ‘governments around the world resort to raids and intimidation and harassment of journalists to stop them from reporting on issues they would rather keep off the public agenda.’
World Press Freedom Day
In honour of World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday May 3rd we pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives for their profession and take the opportunity to defend media from attacks on independence.
If, like me, you feel that a flourishing ‘Third Estate’ is worth fighting for, then consider being proactive by signing a petition, or writing a letter to the editor about freedom of the press.
Or, try simply tuning into an alternative radio station, reading an independent newspaper or follow a forthright blogger. You may not agree with every word they say, but this small act of support shows you defend their right to say it.