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Media freedom has never been more important

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Today is World Press Freedom Day, designated by the United Nations 30 years ago to celebrate and defend freedom of the press around the world.

Globally, and to a lesser but still worrying extent in Bermuda, journalistic freedoms are under threat.

This year’s theme for the day is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”, signifying the enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights.

This is accurate. Without freedom of expression and the freedom of journalists to expose attacks on other freedoms, the whole panoply of civil and human rights that we take for granted would collapse.

So the ability to report on issues of public interest without fear or favour is as important today as it has ever been. And, perhaps more than it has been in more than three decades, it is under threat.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that a record 363 journalists were imprisoned in 2022. They were jailed in more than 30 countries with the highest number held in Iran, China and Myanmar. This is nearly double the figure from 2015 and the most since the press-freedom group began tracking imprisonments three decades ago.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court, in Moscow, Russia, last month (File photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

While the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia is the most prominent example, the reality is that hundreds more are detained, threatened and killed with little international attention.

Other threats are less glaring, but in many ways they are more insidious.

The growth of digital media has upended traditional media models, gutting newsrooms and reducing local reporting at the same time that social media and other digital approaches allowed for a spreading of information that too often has only the most passing acquaintance with facts.

This is not to say that the traditional models of journalism were perfect. They were not and likely never will be. When former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham said journalism was the first draft of history, he meant journalists were often unable to tell the whole story at the first pass. Deadlines, the reality that sometimes the truth is only revealed over time and human nature mean that journalism is imperfect.

Journalism has other flaws as well — a short attention span being one, a failure to recognise nuance another. Journalists often fail to recognise that there is more grey in the world than black and white.

But these failings are outweighed by the importance of bringing fair and accurate reporting to the public, exposing wrongdoing and informing people so they can make good decisions based on facts.

This newspaper and its other local media counterparts do this every day, exposing wrongdoing and adding context and fact-checking to the information it is sent and which it digs up.

This does not happen all of the time or everywhere. Indeed, Fox News has just learnt an $834 million lesson over an elementary failure — telling its viewers what it thought they wanted to hear. By allowing a baseless theory that an election might have been stolen to flourish, Fox News failed itself and its viewers. This was an egregious act, but it happens too often nowadays.

In part that is because, as Guardian newspaper columnist Emily Bell said this week: “Truthfulness and integrity in journalism are hard to sustain in any market. In a market where advertising has migrated elsewhere and news is difficult and often dangerous to produce, it is impossible without external help. Fox News was successful over the past decade because it gave its audience what it wanted. Media markets are not fixed in favour of consensus and sense; they are easier to profit from if decoupled from both.”

That is a dangerous path, but it will be tempting for some.

Avoiding it is difficult without financial independence, and that is why newspapers are increasingly turning to subscriptions and other revenue streams to be viable and to retain their independence.

These approaches are not without risk, and require that subscribers are also committed to the importance of independent journalism.

That also requires that the media ensure that they include diverse perspectives and reporting by journalists from a broad range of backgrounds. As another Guardian columnist, Kelly Walls, notes: “If certain communities are excluded or misrepresented in the news coverage they see, then trust is lost.”

All media have grappled with this, moving, at least in Europe, North America and here in Bermuda, from newsrooms that were predominantly White and male to ones that better reflect their communities. It is a long and often frustrating process in which, to borrow The Berkeley Institute’s motto — “Respice finem” — it is essential to keep the end in view.

Reporting the truth is hard and lonely work. It requires tenacity, resilience and stubbornness. Financial, legal and other forms of moral pressure are brought to bear to drop stories and investigations. It would be an easier life to simply recycle press releases and speeches without testing them against reality. But that would be a moral failure.

And as imperfect as independent journalism may be, it is, like democracy, better than the alternatives.

Vera Jourova, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and is now the leading advocate for media freedom in the European Union, remembers the “horrible brainwash” of her youth, countered by secret listening to the free media.

“Without Voice of America, I only would have known that Václav Havel [dissident and later statesman] and others were enemies of the people,” she told The Guardian. “The official doctrine was very intense.”

Bermuda is not communist Czechoslovakia, thankfully. But weakening press freedom happens slowly and often insidiously. Help us to guard against it.

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Published May 03, 2023 at 7:50 am (Updated May 03, 2023 at 8:24 am)

Media freedom has never been more important

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