The United Nations raised an alarm about the growing threats to press freedom around the world while marking World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
The UN has warned that journalists are facing increasing levels of censorship, harassment, and violence, as governments seek to silence their critics and suppress dissent.
According to Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, which advocates for the protection of journalists, 2022 has seen a significant deterioration in press freedom, with journalists facing an unprecedented level of persecution and intimidation.
“Last year, 86 journalists were killed, mainly outside war zones. Oftentimes, they were at home with their family,” she said not leaving hundreds more who were attacked or imprisoned.
Audrey said the level of impunity for these crimes sends a chilling message because “the security of journalists is not a matter just for journalists or international organizations. It is a matter for society as a whole.”
At a time when journalists are more necessary than ever, given the transformative impact of the digital era on the information landscape, Audrey Azoulay highlighted the mounting challenges they face.
While the internet has created new opportunities for information dissemination and free expression, it has also become a breeding ground for individuals and groups who wish to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories.
“We find ourselves at a new crossroads,” she said. “Our current path is leading us away from informed public debates. Away from the very notion of a shared reality on which it depends. A path towards ever more polarization.”
In many countries, journalists have been targeted for their reporting on sensitive topics, such as corruption, human rights abuses, and government failures.
The UN’s warning comes as journalists and media organizations around the world continue to face numerous challenges, including government censorship, legal harassment, and physical violence.
In some cases, journalists have been detained or imprisoned simply for doing their jobs, while others have been targeted with online harassment and cyber attacks.
Expressing apprehension over the global threats to press freedom, A.G. Sulzberger, the Chairman and Publisher of The New York Times, underscored the potential impact on multilateralism.
“Without journalists to provide news and information that people can depend on, I fear we will continue to see the unravelling of civic bonds, the erosion of democratic norms, and the weakening of the trust in institutions and in each other that is so essential to the global order,” he said.
Sulzberger observed the changes in the media industry since 1993, which was marked by an optimistic outlook due to the end of Cold War divisions, the emergence of young democracies, and advances in information and communication technology.
According to Sulzberger, the moment of optimism for the media industry was short-lived as the same technology that enabled journalists to connect with audiences around the world also led to the closure of numerous newspapers, leaving critical gaps in local and investigative reporting that digital outlets were unable to fill.
“The Internet also unleashed the avalanche of misinformation, propaganda, punditry and clickbait that now overwhelms our information ecosystem, often drowning out credible journalism and accelerating the decline in societal trust,” he said.
Sulzberger emphasized that the erosion of press freedom often leads to democratic erosion, as exemplified by autocrats around the world who use censorship, media repression, and attacks on journalists to consolidate power.
He cited examples from Russia, where journalists face imprisonment for reporting on sensitive issues, and called for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was recently arrested on what he called “sham charges.”
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Sulzberger also urged UN Member States to take action in countering the global attack on press freedom. He emphasized the need for nations with a strong tradition of a free press to secure legal protections for independent reporters and their sources.
“We still need a commitment from the digital giants to elevate independent journalism and ensure it stands apart from untrustworthy information on their platforms,” he added. “And we still need more of the public to value independent journalism enough to support it with their time, their money and their trust.”
As we mark World Press Freedom Day, it is essential to recognize the critical role that journalists play in our societies. Their work helps to shine a light on corruption, expose abuses of power, and hold governments accountable. It is our responsibility to ensure that journalists can do their jobs safely and without fear of retribution.