A free press is a crucial component of a democratic society. It allows residents to receive reliable information about the state of the nation, thereby enabling free and open dialogue about developments and situations, and if and how they should change. These discussions bolster a strong democracy, not least because a free press holds power to account, fights for the truth, and empowers voters to make their mark with informed authority.

A free press is also able to do its important work without influence or fear of retribution from the state or other powerful entities or people. This right also applies to any entity, whether an individual citizen or an organisation or publication. Needless to say, the fight against corruption depends on this freedom to uncover and reveal information.

Today, 3 May, is World Press Freedom Day. It was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of a declaration that was developed at a UNESCO seminar held in Windhoek, Namibia, from 29 April to 3 May 1991. The seminar’s theme was Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, and it gave rise to the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press, or simply the Windhoek Declaration.

This year’s theme is Journalism under Digital Siege, and it highlights the digital era’s impact on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information, and privacy. 

“The digital era has put media workers and their sources at greater risk of being targeted, harassed and attacked – for instance, due to data retention, spyware and digital surveillance,” said UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay.

“Expressions of hatred against journalists have spiralled, affecting women journalists in particular. Our research shows that more than seven out of 10 women reporters surveyed have experienced online violence. And as few of these technologies are regulated transparently and with accountability, perpetrators of violence operate with impunity, often without leaving a trace. This must end,” she emphasised.

This day, therefore, is not only a celebration of the fundamental principles of press freedom and professional ethics. It also serves to reflect on the state of press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of a story.

Importantly, it is also a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.

Journos vulnerable to cyber, real-life violence

Cyberbullying is one increasingly common aspect that not only puts journalists’ lives in danger, but also makes it difficult for them to freely do their work. One just has to venture (cautiously) on to Twitter to experience the leeway which the digital space has given to abusers, allowing free reign to bully, back-stab and bad-mouth. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse, not only in the digital arena but in real life, because they share information that not all will agree with and some will take extreme exception to, whether out of spite, fear or anger.

At the end of April, the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) reported, fans of Faith Nketsi, a social media influencer, sent derogatory messages to City Press entertainment reporter Julia Madibogo, after the former publicly shared Madibogo’s cellphone number with her followers on social media.

“This was after Madibogo contacted Nketsi, seeking her comment on the story the newspaper published regarding Nketsi’s wedding and rumoured pregnancy,” SANEF stated.

Madibogo has since laid charges with the police.

In October 2017, the journalism community around the world was horrified by the car bomb assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who revealed sensitive information and allegations relating to a number of politicians and the Panama Papers scandal. She was killed near her home.

Among other revelations, Caruana Galizia fingered former Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat and two of his closest aides for irregular activities. Her reports connected various offshore companies linked to the trio with the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the Azerbaijani government.  

A public inquiry in 2021 found the Maltese state to be responsible for Caruana Galizia’s death, stating that it had failed to recognise risks to her life and take steps to counter them. The inquiry report noted a culture of impunity within the highest echelons of power, singling out Muscat for enabling this culture and finding that his entire cabinet was collectively responsible for the failure to protect the reporter. Furthermore, said the report, all the evidence heard throughout the inquiry “led to a conviction that Caruana Galizia’s assassination was either intrinsically or directly linked to her investigative work”.

Muscat resigned in 2019 after an investigation. He continues to deny corruption allegations.

These are just two of the disturbing incidents experienced by journalists in recent years – and they are but two of many. The fact that the two reporters were moving in notably different spheres of journalism makes no difference – they were both targeted and attacked, and one lost her life.

Key messages for World Press Freedom Day

  • Social media platforms should increase transparency about any actions to stop the spread of disinformation and to promote trustworthy information instead.
  • Human rights-based governance is needed to ensure that internet companies do more to tackle disinformation, online hate speech and potentially harmful content. This must be consistent with international standards on freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists.
  • Privacy standards must be strengthened in regard to threats to the right to privacy by digital technologies and practices such as data retention, artificial intelligence, spyware, and arbitrary surveillance.
  • Legal actions are needed to prevent and prosecute illegal surveillance of journalists, both by public and private parties, while there should be strengthened legal protection for journalists to keep their sources confidential.
  • Platforms and police services must take strong steps to prevent and eliminate online attacks against journalists, orchestrated campaigns of harassment, intimidation, and violations of privacy.
  • Intensified measures need to be taken to protect women journalists, who are especially violently targeted online and offline, such as by increasing responsiveness to their situation and developing tools to identify and fight online violence.
  • Of immediate concern is the economic viability of media, as many outlets continue to bleed advertising revenues to Internet companies, resulting in news deserts and existential threats to media pluralism and independence.
  • UNESCO member states, internet intermediaries and civil society all have a role to play to break the digital siege on journalism, and to find multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges.
  • World Press Freedom Day 2022 is an opportunity to put into action the commitments made by all UNESCO member states as regards the principles of the Windhoek +30 Declaration. The Windhoek +30 Declaration continues to be relevant in regard to its recognition that press freedom, independence, and pluralism are prerequisites to guarantee information as a public good that serves as a shared resource for the whole of humanity.
  • Now media viability, transparency of digital platforms, and citizens empowered with media and information literacy have been added to the core tasks.
  • This year we walk-the-talk on implementing the Windhoek+30 Declaration with practical steps to do our part to help secure information as a public good as an urgent need today, and as a legacy for those who come after us.