FREE PRESS IN PERIL

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”

                                        – George Orwell

Through and through, journalism has not been met with kindness in the 21st century. The ability of journalists to report freely is naturally indispensable. Unfortunately, down these past years, the free-standing media has been pulled down and wrecked. The World Press Freedom Index reports that converging crises around the globe have amplified all threats to journalists reporting free, independent, and reliable information. The high-profile killings of journalists have been on the rise where between 2000-2021, over 1700 deaths have been reported. What is even less talked about is the myriad of inclusive risks like censorship, detention, cyberattacks, and malicious lawsuits. Attacks on Press Freedom is the modern standard now, where the world is becoming a combat zone for unfettered journalism and the freedom of expression.

FREE PRESS – A STUMBLING BLOCK

Journalists and media men have seen through their service without fear or favour in this age of intolerance where they are murdered, beaten, arrested, censored, abducted, and fired upon with live ammunition, where these patterns of growing intimidation are accelerated by police forces, vigilantes, militants, corporate and political institutions, where misogyny and physical harm preceded by online threats pose a greater danger to the female counterpart, where governments dox those trying to deliver unvarnished truths, where unscrupulous journalists are eroding its standard and faith of citizens, where the state itself attempts to silence the media and brutally bowdlerize all criticisms to proliferate populist propaganda where, regardless, impunity remains a norm: all to muzzle Press Freedom.

BEFITTING REALITY

“….. right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media ……”

Article 19.2 of the ICCPR adopted by the UN General Assembly reads the aforementioned words, such declarations become legally binding on the member states. However, they are solely aspirational. Not much has been achieved by the nations: democratic and autocratic alike. Large segments population remain uninformed or misinformed and downward spirals mankind. Alluding to the same in Union of India v. Assn. for Democratic Reforms, the court held that One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation, and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce.

The erosion of press freedom will ultimately result in the global decline of political rights and civil liberties. Nevertheless, attacks on free press/media have come in all forms. Beginning from the notorious disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissent author/journalist and a frequent critic well known for his global opinions on the Saudi government killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the almost instantaneous execution of Jan Kuciak for writing about tax embezzlement and fraud committed by the mafia and other political leaders linked to Slovakian Prime Minister, Robert Fico that subsequently contributed to his resignation and the coldblooded murder of Gauri Lankesh, an Indian political activist and journalist in the light of day for her renowned criticism of the right-wing extremism: these names are a few to label where the highest form of censorship has been imposed i.e. murder.

Followed by Israeli PM, Netanyahu’s constant attempt to snuff out investigative journalism and him facing corruption and bribery charges offering favours to media houses in return for positive coverage in media and the perpetual vilification of press by Donald Trump of the US enough to prove how media/press has fallen prey to the government’s discretion.

Strikingly, India too pulled off 14th rank among states where journalists are murdered and their killers go free. Lest unkilled, they are exposed to all and every kind of violence making India a ‘dangerous’ country for journalists securing 142nd position in the World Freedom Index alluding to aggravation by police and paramilitary forces in Kashmir and other parts of the territory, reprisals by political activist and criminal groups, public condemnation and arrest of journalists under the infamous sedition charges, the spread of pro-government propaganda and ‘Hindutva’ polity, brutal bowdlerization of government criticism and misinformation regarding COVID-19. 

Furthermore, fates most journalists from Malta, Venezuela, Brazil, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Austria, and Russia who have attempted to uncover political corruption and misdeed remain murder/disappearance mysteries.

What unites all of the above cases is that this trend has occurred in open democracies. It is now painfully apparent that even years of democratic rule have failed to secure democratic principles like press freedom and transparency.

It is seminal that when free expression and press are undermined, so is democracy. The anti-press policies lead by these elected heads have undoubtedly started to destroy the fabric of democracy itself. Under repressive circumstances such as these, the principles and institutions are bound to succumb fueling a global decline.

COUNTERING THE PROBLEM

Every citizen of this world is entitled to the right to information under the Freedom of Expression recognized by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly and Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this view, one’s nation ought to constitute an informed citizenry to keep a check on arbitrary actions of the government in an attempt to safeguard an individual’s fundamental rights and civil liberties.

In an akin judgment, the Supreme Court of India in Indian Express Newspapers Ltd. v. Union of India held in today’s free world freedom of the press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible on a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material that would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities.

The free press is a tale chronicler, a watchdog, and a pen that ties government and its citizens together. Thus, the threat to Free Press is synonymous with the threat to a citizen’s entitlement yet, it has been under attack…Every individual must uphold a free press and stay on guard against any jeopardizing phenomena. Creating a more secure environment for Press Freedom will depend on nation policy-making and more importantly, the conscience of the common citizens.

Stated below are some proposals to achieve the same:
There must be an attempt made by every person to create awareness about the importance of their right to expression and free speech and a Free Press. An individual’s right to expression is where many other rights are contingent. Thus, stringent efforts should be made to educate the mass about the same. All must publicly take a stand against any violation of these rights.
People must exercise their right to information. They must demand government transparency above all. They should urge all leaders to operate in the open and open government audits must be conducted for the same.
Governments of nations should realize the accountability of their actions. These leaders ought to be positively obligated to create an environment for free speech and expression. Their actions should not be contrary. Censorship and sedition laws in most countries should be reviewed and all loopholes in other legislation on this matter must be eliminated.

Strong and immediate actions against violations of media freedom should be taken. Such perpetrators should be identified, prosecuted, and punished. No form of assault or crime against the Press should be permissible.
Press houses should be fully equipped to fight against propaganda. Circulations of fake news and misinformation in public should be quickly countered and corrected. Bans, censorships, and any kind of intimidation must be met with proper redressals within a legal framework or other authorities concerned. Social media platforms should start serving as enterprises of free speech and expression.
Media houses and employers should be able to provide appropriate training, equipment and resources to their journalists and employees who are covering reports in volatile areas. National and international bodies alike should invest in strengthening mechanisms for the safety of journalists against attacks. Safety guidelines should be introduced for journalists covering civil unrest.

Governmental, as well as multilateral bodies, should generously contribute to training the police and other authorities on freedom of expression and press. They should be addressed with how the police can handle volatile situations such as in a protest without resorting to brutality. Methods of discerning between press and civilians and appropriate vs inappropriate tactics on handling such situations. Police brutality should be condemned by the public jointly.

  1. Aid and assistance must be provided to those institutions supporting this cause. It should be seen that foreign/national policies and aids support Press Freedom to provide training and assistance where needed.
  2. Lastly, strong civic engagement is need from the common mass. With proper media literacy skills, the resolve should not be too difficult to achieve.

In a world rife with sham information: particularly divisive and polarizing, journalists have persevered relentlessly to right the wrong. Even so, humbled by responsibility, the press, is ever fostering the hope of outright freedom from atrocities, seeking fair redressals and justice in the form of ardent protests. The real impact seems distant, nevertheless, is on the horizon.

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