Thomas Jefferson memorably said that “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” May 3, World Press Freedom Day, is a useful moment to reflect on the fragility of the free press that Jefferson had in mind.
In countries like China, Egypt and Turkey more than 250 journalists are imprisoned; hundreds more – particularly in the Americas – face threats and violence every day. Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, Reuters journalists who reported on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been detained for 16 months and look set to serve seven-year prison sentences. In recent days the journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed during a protest in Derry, Northern Ireland. Seven months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, despite compelling evidence of its complicity with the killers, the Saudi monarchy has maintained a cozy relationship with the Trump administration and with many Western multinationals.
Less dramatic events also affect press freedom. Consider, for instance, the disappearance of local news outlets as audiences migrate to Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – the so-called FAANGs. The increased reach, connectivity and convenience that the new companies provide have made them virtually irresistible to their users, but their rapid ascent has also harmed the digital public sphere by speeding up the decline and disappearance of thousands of local newspapers. Without journalists watching, local governments have misbehaved with impunity.
Last July the Brookings Institution released the results of a joint study with Brandeis, Washington University and the University of Chicago’s Harris Institute of Public Policy. Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance concluded that the “loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies… and higher government wages, employees, and tax revenues.” A month ago, a different study of 11 local papers in California also noted that cities with reduced local news coverage had “significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races.”
Five years ago, building on earlier work to combat impunity, UNESCO argued that freedom of expression should be one of the UN’s millennium development goals. It noted that “news media, and others who contribute journalism in the public sphere … act as watchdogs of the people and scrutinize those in power, expose wrongdoings and promote transparency.” UNESCO also emphasized that independent media protect the rule of law, empower women, youth and visible minorities and help ensure stable and peaceful societies.
The last decade has shown that free, pluralistic and independent media cannot exist without support from all parts of the political spectrum. Across the globe, governments of every persuasion have attacked and in many cases criminalized press coverage that they didn’t like. Many of us think that that a short list of repressive regimes are responsible for the most flagrant violations of press freedom but Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jamal Khashoggi and Laura McKee were all murdered within Europe. This should underscore the importance of solidarity with independent journalists everywhere and the need to insist that governments are not allowed to intimidate journalists, punish them for critical reporting, harass them with criminal defamation, or stigmatize their work in any other way.