When press freedom is in danger, no one is safe
If I am not sleeping on a flight, it is because my mind is racing. On July 9, I flew to London anticipating all that was ahead in the next week. Two months ago I was invited to the Global Conference for Media Freedom, co-hosted by the UK and Canada. I carefully did my research and I couldn’t wait to be at Printworks London.
Media freedom is a right to which all governments have committed, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Delegations from over 100 countries, including 60 ministers, and more than 1,500 journalists, academics, civil society members, and campaigners came together at the conference in this cause. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced five practical steps the British government would take alongside partners.
This includes establishing the Global Media Defence Fund to be administered by UNESCO, establishing an international task force to help governments deliver their commitments on media freedom.
Amal Clooney convened a panel of experts to advise countries on how to strengthen the legal protection of journalists. The fourth step was bringing together like-minded countries to lobby when media freedom is threatened.
Finally, Hunt invited every country represented there to sign the Global Pledge on media freedom. The pledge was in agreement that societies succeed more where freedom of media is ensured. Attacks on it were deemed as attacks on human rights. Ironically often governments themselves become the threat to media freedom by putting up restrictive legal frameworks.
According to Amal Clooney, the decline in media freedom does not mean that only journalists have fewer rights, it means we all do.
Two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Brazil, have some of the highest murder rates of journalists. Highest rates of journalists being jailed are recorded in Turkey, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Not so surprisingly this problem exists even in democracies that have a reputation of a strong tradition of free speech. Freedom in the World report recorded global declines in civil liberties from 2005 to 2018.
Serbia and Hungary’s status declined from “free” to “partly free.” Uganda and Nicaragua’s status declined from partly free to not free while Zimbabwe’s status improved from not free to partly free. To address the critical problems, the conclave immersed in different discussions to solve them.
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland chaired an international panel about how journalists could address disinformation. I found this particularly relevant to recent times’ local news of rumours leading to vigilantism.
A panel on Digital Safety Solutions Lab educated the audience on a wide range of digital safety challenges and solutions. The symposium provided opportunities for cross border dialogues. Come to think of it, I might never learn about building an integrated support system for journalists jeopardized in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, had the government of Latvia not taken the initiative at this diverse gathering.
There was a wonderful sense of inclusivity when another panel emphasized efforts to bring to justice those who have killed journalists and examine initiatives to affect change in UN member states to prevent impunity. I listened in awe to Luz Mely Reyes who defied the Maduro regime by co-founding an independent news website Efecto Cocuyo.
I learned about Gulnara Bazhkenova from Kazakhstan who runs the website Holanews. It exposed how fish stocks in the Ural river had been devastated by poisoning.
Attendees could easily draw a sharp contrast such as in China where automated censorship and the Great Firewall block access to thousands of news websites while millions of people employed to censor content, fake social media posts and manipulate online debate.
The audience witnessed Jeremy Hunt calling on the Vietnamese and Chinese authorities to release journalists in prison. Last year, I represented Bangladesh at Future News Worldwide 2018, a partnership program between the British Council and some of the world’s leading media organizations.
It was aimed at supporting young people to develop a wide range of journalism skills. I was fortunate to have been a part of the alumni delegation provided with the scholarship to attend the conference. The British Council hosted a youth hub at the event. The program allowed us to attend Google News Lab hosted by the Google News Initiative. Verification techniques using a variety of tools from Google and data journalism were discussed.
When I joined a panel on “Citizenship in the digital age” hosted by The Fourth Group, I was proud of my peers who delivered diverse insights from all over the world. We dealt with difficult questions pertaining to citizens’ rights, responsibilities to address disinformation, and harmful content online. Looking back, I am thankful to opportunities that allow the youth to be heard.
The Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) brought together South Asian journalists at the University of Westminister for a workshop on cross-border Storytelling. As the youngest in the room, I found myself encouraged to join a discourse with photojournalists, trade union leaders, academics and editors.
We agreed that misunderstandings about key facts help sustain popular support for conflicts. The ways in which political pressure is brought to bear on media houses, NGOs, new media initiatives have gone underground. It is less visible from outside and so harder to call out. We are in a time when democratic values are under assault, from the dodgy corners of autocratic states to the capitals of the great democracies, journalists are among the most visible victims, attacked, vilified and scapegoated.
At the Global Conference for Media Freedom, we celebrated stories of hope as the achievements of countries taking steps to protect media freedom.
I stepped out of Printworks feeling all attendees were on the same page about the problem’s urgency. It is indeed easier to speak up when you are not alone.
Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in gender and indigenous politics.