College Commemorates World Press Freedom Day
Today, communities around the globe are celebrating World Press Freedom Day. It is a day for recognizing what fundamental freedom of the press means for global democracy. World Press Freedom Day was officially announced by the U.N. General Assembly in December of 1993, and has been celebrated on May 3 every year since. Today, we not only commemorate a free press, but we also reflect on the state of press freedoms throughout the world, and we pay tribute to those journalists who have given their lives in the line of duty.
Here in the United States of America we have, enshrined in our Constitution, basic freedoms that allow us to continue our great democratic experiment. The first and most fundamental rights come from the First Amendment. These are the rights to speak freely, to have a free and critical press, to practice or not practice any religion you choose, to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and to peaceably assemble. Tomorrow, May 4, we here at Kent State University will remember and honor the students who lost their lives expressing these basic rights on campus 47 years ago. While we remember these students, we also must never forget that the struggle for these rights continues: There are people throughout the world who face relentless and often brutal attacks on their basic freedoms.
To commemorate this year's World Press Freedom Day, I asked Dean Amy Reynolds of the College of Communication and Information and Assistant Professor Tewodros (Teddy) Workneh of the School of Communication Studies to discuss freedom of the press. Dean Reynolds received her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Texas at Austin. Dean Reynolds’ research focuses on dissent and the First Amendment, First Amendment history and media sociology. Professor Workneh received his Master of Arts in Journalism and Communication from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and went on to receive a Ph.D. in Media Studies with a concentration in International Communications from the University of Oregon.
This is what they had to say:
Why should we care about World Press Freedom Day?
Dean Reynolds: We should always celebrate a free press and its importance to democracy and to our global society. Without a free press we would not hold the powerful accountable or bring light to social problems. We would have a substantially more difficult time understanding different cultures, ideas and perspectives. We would not really know the stories of the lives of others beyond our own circles. I think a free press is vital for a civil society.
This is also a day to remember the journalists who have lost their lives because they wanted to share important stories with the world. We should honor them.
Professor Workneh: The struggle today, as it has been for many centuries, is waged between those who have stories to tell and those who want to tell a single story. Globally, powerful groups such as governments and corporations have the mechanisms to tell a story that is designed to be the winning idea. This gives them incredible power which usually tends to be abused in a manner that is harmful to the public. This is why our last and best defense against abuse of power is bestowed upon the media—the institution that can, ideally, bring checks and balances. As a result, it is not uncommon for powerful groups to target independent media and its practitioners.
The World Press Freedom Day is a reminder of the centrality of media in safeguarding our democracy.
What, in your view, is the state of press freedom across the globe?
Dean Reynolds: It’s always evolving in both good and bad ways. Take Turkey for example. More than a decade ago, Turkey began to ease free speech restrictions as it considered future membership in the European Union. The country worked to become more democratic and expand independent media. Within the past year, Turkey has significantly regressed when it comes to press freedom. In addition to shutting down various media outlets after the failed coup, President Erdogan has jailed more than a hundred journalists. Various organizations and governments around the world have condemned what is happening in Turkey and are trying to free these journalists, whose only crime was reporting the news.
Egypt is another country in which press is not free. There’s a new film out that tells the story of Bassem Youssef, the man who many people call the Egyptian Jon Stewart. A few years ago the Egyptian government issued a warrant for his arrest because he was supposedly making false claims against President Morsi and was insulting Islam. He’s a comedian, but like our Jon Stewart, was challenging political power by satirizing the news.
If people are interested in keeping up with all of the press freedom challenges around the globe, Reporters without Borders does a good job keeping track. Of course, it would be better if no one had to count the number of journalists killed and jailed each year. Reporters without Borders has also created a World Press Freedom index that highlights annual challenges to a free press in each country.
Professor Workneh: The state of press freedom today, the way I see it, is experiencing unprecedented challenges. This may sound hyperbolic, but it is not. Our world, including communities that have for long upheld liberal democracy traditions, is going through a wave of populism that seems to take for granted, or relegate, civil liberties in favor of narrow nationalism. This is not to say populism is an entirely new phenomenon. We have been there before, and this may as well be just a cycle that we need to go through. I would like to emphasize, however, democracies such as the United States that are experiencing the current wave of populism, which in turn depresses alternative, critical speech have on the institutional and legal infrastructure that enables them to be resilient.
I believe the more dangerous blow today is experienced by communities that have a history of authoritarianism, especially those that have seen slow but steady transitions to democratic governance. Governments with authoritarian tendencies are emboldened by the indifference traditional democracies are showing to issues of human rights.
My own country, Ethiopia, has a history of being a highly centralized, atomic and oftentimes repressive history of statehood. When the former military regime was overthrown in 1991, many Ethiopians were optimistic about the democratic future of the republic. That didn’t happen, and we live under an equally repressive regime where broadcasting is still a sector that is tightly controlled by the state. Ethiopia is today one of the top jailers of independent journalists. The global wave of populism in the most advance democracies will leave no one with a credible moral authority to stand up for freedom of expression. And this is bad news for countries like mine that briefly experimented with democratic governance.
Is press freedom at risk in the United States?
Dean Reynolds: I’m in the process of revising a media law textbook that I write with a colleague at Washington State University. This particular revision has been really challenging because so much is happening with press freedom in the United States. This is a difficult question to answer because press freedom is complex.
With respect to core press freedoms, we have the First Amendment and strong Supreme Court precedents that provide powerful, general protections. I don’t worry that our core protections are at risk. For example, the notion that President Trump can change our libel laws is simply ridiculous. He can’t do that on his own, nor can Congress.
What is at risk, and has been for years, is citizens’ confidence in the press. Dictators around the world control their media (usually through state ownership and/or censorship) so they don’t have to actively undermine it. When the American citizen begins to question facts or not have the ability to differentiate facts from opinion, that’s a problem. When politically powerful people intentionally undermine media credibility, that can have a negative impact on press freedom. The press is impacted by the political and social context in which it operates. If the citizenry turns on its free press then the press is in danger. If the institution of the press isn’t credible then it is substantially easier to challenge press freedoms, particularly those that are protected by statues (as opposed to the Constitution), such as the Freedom of Information Act and other avenues that ensure access to information. This is one area to watch.
Professor Workneh: I am not sure if press freedom is at risk in the United States, but it clearly is under attack. Is this attack concerning? Absolutely. Will it continue? I am not sure. Although the current negative climate toward the press may be seen as lamentable, I think it is also a great opportunity for us to pause and reflect on the critical role media has played in sustaining democratic values. Good journalism is a result of hard-working, dedicated people. I think our disregard to journalism in the past few years has come to bite us back when, today, the very notions of facts and reality are questioned. I think many people are starting to understand how media—and by that I mean ethical, responsible media—are absolutely critical if we aspire to cultivate a more sustainable democratic polity.
What can each of us do to better ensure press freedom in our communities?
Dean Reynolds: We should first understand that press freedom is not a one-dimensional concept; it includes protection for individual journalists, fighting against laws or orders that restrict press and recognizing and affirming that the press plays a vital role for all citizens. The best way to ensure press freedom is to first recognize when the press is under attack. Understand the context in which press works in your community. If you’re from a place that has state-controlled media, recognize that you need to seek out alternative sources of information. If you live in a democracy, you should pay attention to efforts to restrict a free press and challenge those who seek to undermine it.
You can also support press freedom by joining organizations that promote press freedom – groups like Reporters without Borders, the International Center for Journalists or the Committee to Protect Journalists. Follow these groups on social media so you’re aware of what’s happening with press freedom around the world.
I also encourage people to think about the positive ways that a free press has impacted their lives. I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for five years, and people there were so grateful to the press as the state recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We know media is critical for communities in times of crisis and disaster. Journalists do a lot of good in the world, but sometimes that gets lost in politically turbulent times when it’s easy to blame the media as the messenger. The media isn’t perfect, and journalists are humans who sometimes make mistakes. But it’s a noble profession and one worthy of defending, especially if you care about living your life as an informed global citizen.
Professor Workneh: I think our classrooms and our curriculum should reflect the vitality of freedom of expression. We need to prepare our communities for dialogue, even to ideas that they do not necessarily see as valid. Our goal should be advancing the platform for debate and intercultural encounters, which I think is the only way we can eventually get rid of the sinister deployments of free speech such as bigotry and hate speech.
Map from Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, https://rsf.org/en/ranking