Press freedom declines ahead of World Press Freedom Day

Press freedom declines ahead of World Press Freedom Day


Press freedom worldwide is deteriorating, and repressive laws implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic have expedited its decline, according to an annual report by Reporters Without Borders released in mid-April 2021, two weeks ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Reporters Without Borders, known by the abbreviation RSF, cited the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as one of the worst offenders, ranking it 177th out of 180 countries for the third year in a row on its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “continues to take internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to unprecedented levels,” the RSF report said. “Beijing has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to enhance its control over online information even more.”

The PRC continues to be the world’s “biggest jailer of journalists,” the report said, detaining more than 120 defenders of press freedom. At least seven journalists remain in jail for their pandemic coverage and more than 450 social media users were briefly arrested for sharing “false rumors” about the virus, according to RSF.

Moreover, “in the Asia-Pacific region, the ‘censorship virus’ spread beyond China, in particular to Hong Kong (80th), where the national security law imposed by Beijing seriously threatens journalists,” the report said, calling the “totalitarian control of information” from the CCP in Hong Kong “a grave concern.”

Only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea ranked lower than the PRC on the index, which evaluates countries based on the level of freedom available to journalists. North Korea, “which has no need to take lessons in censorship from its Chinese neighbor, continues to rank among the index’s worst performers because of its totalitarian control over information and its population. A North Korean citizen can still end up in a concentration camp just for looking at the website of a media outlet based abroad,” the report said.

Journalism in Burma, which is ranked 140th, was set back a decade by the February 1, 2021, military coup, according to the report. Journalists there “again face systematic arrest campaigns and censorship, and many will resign themselves to working clandestinely in order to be free to report what is happening and to evade the police.”

This year’s World Press Freedom Day, with a theme of “Information as a Public Good,” strives to increase awareness about how changing communications systems are affecting health, human rights, democracies and sustainable development worldwide, according to the United Nations website. It offers “a chance to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind.”

The theme remains as relevant today as it was 30 years ago when African journalists signed a declaration at a UNESCO conference in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991 to develop a free, independent and pluralistic press, connecting the freedom to seek, impart and receive information with the public good, according to the UNESCO website.

In December 1993, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day and began celebrating it every May 3, the anniversary of the Windhoek declaration. Similar declarations have been signed in other regions in the developing world to affirm the international community’s commitment to freedom of the press. (Pictured: Pakistani journalists attend a candlelight vigil to observe World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2019, in Karachi.)

This year, World Press Freedom Day organizers are emphasizing the importance of addressing media viability, platform transparency, and user literacy and capacity.

“Awareness of the interdependence of these factors within the bigger picture is a step towards an improved information ecology. Such awareness is a prelude to potential changes in policy, regulation, self-regulation, multi-stakeholder governance, education and informed public participation,” according to the UNESCO website. “Information is an entitlement of each individual, but its availability, prominence and recognition are a common concern.”

World Press Freedom Day also serves to remind governments to refresh their commitment to press freedom and to encourage members of the media to reflect on press freedom and professional ethics.