Alison Bethel McKenzie contribution for RMNP on the eve of World Press Freedom Day May3,2020
I remember receiving the email like it was yesterday. It began as every email from my colleagues in Pakistan begins: “Dear Madam.” But the news that followed was heartbreaking.
It was the end of April, early in the year of 2019, and I was being told that Malik Amanullah Khan had been murdered by two unidentified gunmen while on his motorbike. He died on the spot, and his assailants are still roaming the country’s streets.
Seven journalists were murdered in Pakistan in 2019, according to the Rural Media Network Pakistan. And so far, this year, police are investigating the death of journalist Aziz Ahmed Memon, a reporter for Daily Kawish and KTN Network. Memon was found dead in a canal near Hallani in Naushahro Feroze in Sindh province in February, according to reports.
This weekend we recognize World Press Freedom Day; a day when journalists and their allies around the world remind us as citizens, and governments, of the importance of a free press. This year the United Nations has designated as a global theme “Journalism Without Fear or Favor.”
In 2019, some 47 journalists were murdered around the world because of their work, according to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which I had the privilege of leading from 2009-2014. The number of deaths last year was a sharp decline over previous years and was the lowest number recorded by IPI since 1997. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 554 journalists have been killed over the past decade.
In Pakistan, journalists continue to be under threat. Media workers are subjected to possible physical attacks, threats, disappearance and torture for simply doing their jobs. And the shrinking of the media business has taken great toll on journalists who have seen newspapers fold and colleagues left without employment.
Attacks on local journalists instill fear and self-censorship, which threatens the public’s access to information. And at no greater time than now is that access more important.
The central role of the press is providing accurate and independent information, and that role is under threat at a time when the world is facing a global pandemic. IPI reported 162 violations against journalists covering the COVID-19 virus globally. Many of those violations were against journalists in India.
“As the [COVID-19} pandemic spread, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories. The press provides the antidote: Verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
While there are those who continue to accuse journalists of providing “fake news” to readers, viewers and listeners, anecdotal evidence indicates that increasing numbers of people are rallying to support the work that the media is doing in providing critical information on the deadly virus.
As “essential workers” and key responders during the crisis, journalists continue to cover the story, oftentimes putting themselves and, potentially, their families at risk.
Access to information is so critical during this period that the U.S.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has outlined recommendations for journalists, legislators and courts in the document Press freedom and government transparency during COVID-19 “to make sure that the public’s right of access to government information and proceeds is protected while entities take necessary steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
In my home country – the United States of America, journalists are also facing challenges, though not as life threatening as in Pakistan and some other countries.
According to Reporters Without Borders, last year the United States saw fewer jailing and attacks on journalists, but the administration of President Donald Trump in March 2019 began to investigate journalists to find material to embarrass or discredit them. Journalists re-entering the country also complained of hostile questioning, excessive search measures and even dentition at U.S. borders.
The Freedom Forum, which tracks press freedom in countries around the world, had this to say in its 2019 report on the United States: “Trump has been harshly critical of the mainstream media, routinely using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias and mendacity. He has maintained a drumbeat of attacks on individual journalists and established outlets, describing them as – among other things – “fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.’”
Yet even with the increased distrust of the media among American citizens and attacks by government officials, American journalists still enjoy freedom unprecedented in many nations around the world. “I think we see a lack of trust in the press that is growing, and I think we see hostility against the press from the public as well as the government. But journalists in America are still in a very privileged position and we should appreciate that, and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” says Damaso Reyes, an independent, U.S. journalist based in Barcelona and founder of Clarify.media. “When we compare the situation of most American journalists compared to other places in the world, I think we can agree that the United States is still a good place to be a journalist.”
As we recognize World Press Freedom Day this year we also recognize the importance of a free press and the public’s right to know in every corner of the world. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes: “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.”
While my colleagues in Pakistan may have a long way to go in truly gaining a free and independent media, I praise them for refusing to bow down to outside pressures, and I join my voice with theirs in calling on the Pakistani government to “provide a safety umbrella to the working journalists so they can work without any fear.”
Alison Bethel McKenzie is a veteran journalist, editor and press freedom advocate. The former executive director of the International Press Institute, she currently serves as Director of Corps Excellence for Report for America, based in Washington, D.C.