It hasn’t been a month yet since the 30th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day but it is very unlikely anybody remembers that ~ in fact, few of us even in the profession. Well, with countless World Days, nobody can be faulted. Besides, in India, probably more so in the Northeast, the World Press Freedom Day is hardly considered worth a thought ~ except as a news item in the print media. Increasingly over the decades, the Press has been consciously and deliberately elbowed out as the fourth pillar of democracy therefore it is not surprising that even our democracy today stands unevenly and shakily on three pillars ~ some would even go so far as to say two-and-a-half pillars. Hence it is all the more imperative that the World Press Freedom Day should be observed ~ and perhaps someday celebrated ~ by those who value the freedoms and liberties enshrined in our Constitution. Without our freedoms and liberties, we exist in chains and democracy is asphyxiated.
The World Press Freedom Day was first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 and authorized to be held every May 3. This year on the World Press Freedom Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the media is under attack in every corner of the world and warned countries to stop targeting of truth and those who report it. In a video message on the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, Guterres stated that there has been a 50% rise in the killing of media workers in 2022 and underlined that the press “is the foundation of democracy and justice” and it is under threat. He also said, “Truth is threatened by disinformation and hate speech seeking to blur the lines between fact and fiction, between science and conspiracy”.
On the occasion Guterres cited Russia’s example of how countries are suppressing media rights. As per Russia’s law, anyone publishing information about its military that Moscow deems to be false could face up to 15 years in prison. Earlier, Russia detained Wall Street Journal Reporter Evan Gershkovich in late March, accusing him of spying. The UN chief further strongly criticised the targeting of media workers both on and offline, saying they are routinely harassed, intimidated and detained. While talking of the gender based violence in media, Guterres said that three-quarters of women journalists have experienced violence online and one-quarter have been threatened physically. The Secretary-General said the world must unite to stop threats, attacks and imprisonment of journalists for doing their jobs and stop the lies and disinformation. “As journalists stand up for truth, the world stands up with them”, he said.
The Secretary-General did not mince any words, which a person of his stature needed to do. After all, according to Reporters Without Borders, 55 journalists and 4 media workers were killed in the line of duty in 2022. While all of them were killed in the line of duty, most of them were killed deliberately, which actually amounts to homicide. And justice seems to always elude slain journalists ~ as also those wrongfully incarcerated under trumped up charges, with little or no opportunity for them to defend themselves. Then there is another category of journalists, who are physically, mentally and psychologically attacked ~ sometimes directly by State machineries, other times indirectly by State machineries through the agencies of tribal bodies, civil societies and non-State actors. Such attacks directly by non-State actors are also well known especially in Northeastern States, particularly in Manipur and Nagaland. It is now all the more imperative for documentation of such attacks particularly in the Northeast however painful it is for victims of such attacks to talk about them. I speak from experience. Moreover, this documentation is also imperative to honour journalists, whose lives have been snuffed out just for of speaking truth to power ~ this power are basically political, social, economic and cultural of State and non-State actors, as also of powerful civil organizations. Why should anybody be targeted for simply doing their job and upholding professional principles?
Till the time journalists are allowed to do their job without having to look over their shoulders every other second, Press Freedom will remain an elusive dream and democracy an aspiration. While it is vital for the State to ensure Press Freedom and give due respect to journalists, it is equally crucial for the public to do the same. It is, after all, from the people, the State acquires its power ergo if the people assert Press Freedom as crucial for their democratic and other rights, the State would have no option but to bow down to the people’s voices. This I believe is a critical component of Guterres’ statement: “As journalists stand up for truth, the world stands up with them”. Obviously, the message here for journalists also means that as we stand for truth, the world stands with us ~ so, as we don’t stand with truth the world doesn’t stand with us. Seeing the ways the media across the globe, not least in India, even in the Northeast, have been changing tracks quite diametrically from the raison d’etre and objectives of the Fourth Pillar in a democracy, Guterres’ statement ~ “As journalists stand up for truth, the world stands up with them” ~ assumes great significance but are we, particularly in the media, reading it? Is the world reading it? Are the people reading it, much less understanding and appreciating, the import of said statement?
It all depends on our understanding of democracy, freedoms, liberties and rights. How much do they mean to people today as compared to people before the 21st century? Today the world is no longer what it was even ten-twenty years ago but the world has never remained the same ~ change is it’s middle name. And, as the world changed, so have people so the question is: what values do people hold dearest today? In the answer lays the quality of democracy, which necessarily includes Press Freedom, and the state and status of freedoms, liberties and rights. If personal safety, security, ambitions, profits and aggrandizement, etc., are prioritized to the point when kow-towing to the powers-that-be becomes the only means to achieve them, clearly people have changed and effected the world to change. Under the circumstances, it is but a corollary that “Truth is threatened by disinformation and hate speech seeking to blur the lines between fact and fiction, between science and conspiracy”. This explains the UN Secretary-General’s speech, which also explains the world’s lack of enthusiasm to observe the World Press Freedom Day, much less celebrate it. You see, there is no Press Freedom as “the media is under attack in every corner of the world” and countries are “targeting truth and those who report it”. Ultimately, what matters is what we value, nurture and honour and how we envisage our future. Inarguably, the Press “is the foundation of democracy and justice”. But do democracy, justice and honour mean anything to us today? We generally tend to discount what is unimportant to us, don’t we?
(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Editor, Nagaland Page)
(Courtesy: Assam Tribune, May 22, 2023)