The 30th International Press Freedom Day
The 30th International Press Freedom Day
Jackson Geadelmann (2022-23 Iowa UNA College Ambassador from Luther College)
We are a species of storytellers. We pass stories down generation to generation, parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, or stranger to stranger, all in the hopes of imparting some life-learned wisdom onto others, entertaining one another, or building a semblance of community and shared experience. It’s a cultural ritual, and a necessary part of maintaining democracy and freedom.
This 30th International Press Freedom Day commemorates the vital role of the storytellers in our society who work to provide perspective from outside of the halls of power. Freedom of expression is the bedrock of democracy, and journalists who commit to the work of fair, unbiased reporting do the vital work of investigating and reporting on the state of our society.
According to the Council of Europe’s annual report on the safety and protection of journalists, threats to reporters have grown exponentially: in Ukraine, a dozen Ukrainian journalists have reported to have been killed, and many more reported injured while attempting to document the unfolding violent crisis in the country; there are 19 reported cases of law enforcement agents and judges taking measures to restrict journalists’ rights to report on public events through denying access to public places, arrest and detention, use of physical force while in custody, and imposing fines and jail sentences. Since 2015, 1,547 alerts have been reported to the Council of Europe, less than half have received a state reply, only 298 alerts have been resolved, and dozens and dozens of journalists have been killed or placed in detention for their reporting. Violence against the media is not just violence against important democratic institutions but is also an attack on human rights.
Total alerts of instances of attacks on media. From page 37 of the Council of Europe’s annual report on the safety and protection of journalists.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This right is also enshrined in the United States Constitution under the First Amendment and is additionally secured in the constitutions of the fifty states. However, just as in Europe, the media in the U.S. has become the target of attack amidst political division and popular disillusionment with the job of government in dealing with various pressing issues facing Americans.
The Columbia Journalism Review reported more than 140 assaults on journalists in 2021, more than the instances of media violence reported from 2017 to 2019 combined. This number still was a sharp decline compared to the year of 2020, when the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reported a staggering 631 instances of assaults against journalists. According to the same tracker, in 2022, there were a total of 114 incidents reported, with 35 of those incidents being when a journalist was specifically targeted and subject to violence.
As in Europe, the attacks on the press in the U.S. follows a global rise of authoritarianism and assaults on democracy. However, the threats on press freedom are not coming just from political actors and the people they represent—these threats are being exacerbated by misinformation campaigns.
In her testimony before the U.S. Congress Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s “Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program” Rachel Kleinfeld contextualized the political violence perpetrated on January 6, 2021, in the broader increasing trend of right-wing extremism.
“Extremist groups are using mainstream causes to recruit, expanding their membership,” Kleinfeld said. “In the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, daily internet monitoring showed right-wing violent extremists were encouraging members to use mainstream conservative causes and local rallies to increase recruitment while flying under the radar of national news.”
Kleinfeld also explained how this new version of “extremist” is not the same kind stereotyped in the conventional sense of the word. It is “regular people”, that have been consistently misinformed and fed conspiracy theories, who are revolting against a system they perceive as fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.
“America is facing a mainstreaming of violence among people who are well-established in their communities and who seem to view their violence not as a criminal act but as an extension of political behavior,” Kleinfeld said. “That behavior is clearly influenced by the conspiracy that the 2020 election was “stolen”.”
What this illuminates is how contemporary threats to democracy stem from democratic institutions themselves. The branches of government and the press itself all form an important check on one another in maintaining a healthy system of democratic discourse and consensus-building. When the press becomes biased and partial, it sacrifices its niche in the political system as an independent check on political power, in the name of capitalizing on controversy and confusion.
The successful implementation of most, if not all, of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals relies on a functioning society and capable institutions to carry out policy work. Sustainable Development Goal 16, “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions,” is entirely dependent on a healthy democracy. This is evident in SDG 16’s variety of targets—which all connect with the maintenance of a free and impartial press. Targets 16.1, 16.3, 16.5, 16.6, 16.7, and 16.10 depend on the ability of journalists, media, and individuals themselves to have the capacity to freely express their opinion and transmit information without fear of state retribution. They also depend on the integrity of the press in doing their job to expose corruption and malfeasance.
Journalists chronicle the stories of citizens and our government institutions. They package information for easy digestion of information, and the mass dissemination to the general public, making the work of government transparent to all. International Press Freedom Day celebrates this important work of journalists, but also calls us to preserve the fundamental freedom to express different opinions, to ask questions and get information, and to live in a society where decisions are made transparently with the input of the people.