Today is World Press Freedom Day, although you’d hardly find evidence of that in the United States. Last year, 49 journalists were killed in the Middle East, 27 in Asia, 5 in Africa, 4 in Europe and Central Asia, and 25 in the Americas. Worldwide, 134 journalists were in prison last year. Fourteen years ago, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed each May 3rd to be World Press Freedom Day to prevent such killings and imprisonments from happening.
The theme of the 2007 World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is the many ways in which widespread tightening of security and surveillance measures to prevent terrorism are also preventing journalists from reporting the truth. As World Association of Newspapers CEO Timothy Balding said:
The objective of these measures is laudable and compelling – the protection of citizens against threats to life and property. There is, however, a legitimate and growing concern that in too many instances such measures, whether old or newly introduced, are being used to stifle debate and the free flow of information about political decisions, or that they are being implemented with too little concern for the overriding necessity to protect individual liberties and, notably, freedom of the press.
Anti-terrorism and official secrets laws, criminalisation of speech judged to justify terrorism, criminal prosecution of journalists for disclosing classified information, surveillance of communications without judicial authorisation, restrictions on access to government data and stricter security classifications, all these measures can severely erode the capacity of journalists to investigate and report accurately and critically, and thus the ability of the press to inform.
Newspapers and broadcasters outside the U.S. are commemorating World Press marking this day and calling for greater protection of journalists and the free press. The Himalayan Times in Nepal reported journalists rallying on the streets of Katmandu. In Zimbabwe however police banned 10 marches that the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists had planned through cities of that nation, the first time that police has refused ceremonial marches by Zimbabwean journalists. The Interfax news agency reported that the Russian parliament plans to develop a system of criteria for assessing the level of press freedom in the regions and in Russia as a whole. The Associated Press reported that the murder of Russia’s Anna Politkovskaya and the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston were at the heart of World Press Freedom Day commemorations in Europe.
Yet how many journalists within the United States even know today is the UN sanctioned World Press Freedom Day? Though the White House issued a proclaimation commemorating the day, but you’ll find hardly any coverage of it or about WPFD itself. (Kudos though to Editor & Publisher magazine’s Mark Fitzgerald for writing about WPFD).
For the past 14 years, the World Association of Newspapers has provided newspapers with publishable case studies, articles, photos, and videos about slain, wounded, kidnapped, or imprisoned journalists. Those materials get widepread use by newspapers and broadcasters outside the United States.
However, most American newspapers and broadcasts seem either too oblivious or unconcerned to commemorate WPFD. You’d think that after the murder of The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Pearl, Fox News’ Osama Qadeer, CBS News’ Paul Douglas and James Brolan, or the wounding of NBC News Bob Woodruff might waken the U.S. media in recent years to WPFD. Unlike their brethren elsewhere in the world, perhaps newspapers and broadcasters within the U.S. feel that commemorating WPFD is somehow unseemly self-congratulative? I don’t know the reason why WPFD isn’t commemorated within the U.S.
For several years now, I’ve been calling upon U.S. news media who work online to commemorate WPFD. No longer electronic stepchildren of newspapers or broadcasters, U.S. online media wants to participate at the ‘big table.’ But like it’s elders, U.S. news media online seems even more oblivious or unconcerned about WPFD. Do they know that 49 of the 134 journalists being imprisoned work for online news media? I bet they don’t know that Internet journalists now constitute the second largest category of imprisoned journalists.
Last last year, World Association of Newspapers Communications Director Larry Kilman and I happened to meet at La Asociación de Editores de Diarios Españoles annual meeting in Léon, Spain, and talked about ways that WAN and online media (notably the Online News Association) could work together to get online news media to commemorate WPFD. (I put Larry in touch with ONA’s management but saw no results). I’ll try again next year, by which time even more journalists will be killed, wounded, kidnapped, or imprisoned.