The headlines about press freedom are bleak.
“A deep and disturbing decline in media freedom” characterized the “2016 World Press Freedom Index” recently released by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym, RSF).
Citing increased authoritarianism, tighter government control of state media, deteriorating security situations in war-torn countries and more, RSF said there was a 13.6 percent decline in worldwide media freedoms in just the last three years.
“1,189 journalists killed since 1992,” headlines the grim count by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Most victims were covering (or uncovering) corruption, war, politics or human rights concerns. While many of the deadliest countries are embroiled in chronic Mideast and African conflicts (topped by Iraq, with Syria second, Algeria fourth, Somalia fifth and Pakistan sixth), the inclusion of the Philippines (third), Russia (seventh), Columbia (eighth), India and Brazil (tied for ninth), and Mexico (11th) reflects the global reach of the scourge.
Since most killings of journalists are not prosecuted, this Monday headline was particularly welcome: “RSF hails arrest of Daniel Pearl murder suspect in Karachi.”
The 2002 murder of Pearl, who was the Wall Street Journal’s South Asian bureau chief, remains a searing symbol of media professionals targeted for just doing their job.
Four of those responsible had already been convicted. But time should not shield accomplices, so the arrest of Abdur Rehman is “great news,” said Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications officer at RSF’s U.S. office.
Ewen said that RSF not only tracks but advocates for media freedom and that despite dire situations in several nations, RSF’s annual analysis as well as efforts to end impunity can make a difference. “We see more governments and media talking about the World Press Freedom Index, so we think that is a positive aspect that we can help improve press freedom across the globe,” she said.
And it’s not just nongovernmental organizations such as RSF and CPJ, but international institutions such as the United Nations as well as enlightened governments that have elevated the issue of press freedom.
This Tuesday is World Press Freedom Day. The epicenter of events will fittingly be Helsinki. (Finland has the world’s freest press, according to RSF’s index.)
“May 3 is very important, because it’s an opportunity to reflect on what the situation for journalists is,” said CPJ’s advocacy director, Courtney Radsch. “It’s an opportunity for governments and civil society and journalists around the world to raise awareness of the vital role journalism plays in society.”
The State Department certainly understands this vital role, and Foggy Bottom was perfectly clear in its annual “Country Report on Human Rights Practices” (issued the same day as RSF’s index) when it listed attempts to “stifle media and Internet freedom” as factors in “frequently grim examples” pointing to a “global governance crisis.”
The State Department also highlighted journalists and media organizations being “censored, attacked, threatened, imprisoned or otherwise oppressed” in the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day. In a statement, the department said it wanted to honor the courage and service of those threatened, and it put pressure on other governments. But it also emphasized its commitment to free expression here at home.
That’s especially important since the U.S. ranks an embarrassing 41st in RSF’s index.
So the State Department should urge governments worldwide to embrace a call on Friday from many media outlets, journalists and NGOs that the U.N. appoint a “journalist’s protector” who would have the “political weight, capacity for rapid action and legitimacy to coordinate U.N. efforts for the safety of journalists.” The goal, according to an RSF statement, is to “establish a concrete mechanism that enforces international law and thereby finally reduces the number of journalists killed every year in the course of their work.”
Just as justice grinds slowly — or doesn’t grind at all — in other aspects of life, pressing for press freedoms can seem Sisyphean.
But events like World Press Freedom Day, an arrest in the Daniel Pearl case, and calls for more muscular U.N. action should show that however hard this era is for journalism — and, by extension, citizens worldwide — progress on press freedom and safety is possible.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.