Disinformation, hate speech and deadly attacks against journalists are threatening freedom of the press worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday, calling for greater solidarity with the people who bring us the news.
The appeal comes in his message ahead of World Press Freedom Day, celebrated annually on 3 May, in line with a 1993 UN General Assembly resolution.
The focus this year is on the connection between press freedom and overall human rights.
A global problem
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice. It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. But in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack,” Mr. Guterres said.
The Secretary-General is away from New York and a video of his message was played during a ceremony in the General Assembly Hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.
Prominent journalists and the heads of media and human rights organizations from around the world are attending the event, sharing their experiences and opinions in several panels on subjects such as multilateralism and freedom of expression.
Deadliest year for journalists
Delivering opening remarks, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UN cultural agency UNESCO, which advocates for the protection of journalists, said 2022 was the deadliest year for the profession.
Last year, 86 journalists were killed, mainly outside war zones. “Oftentimes, they were at home with their family,” she said. Hundreds more were attacked or imprisoned.
She said the level of impunity for these crimes sends a chilling message because “the security of journalists is not a matter just for journalists or international organizations. It is a matter for society as a whole.”
Furthermore, reporters are also coming under attack in cyberspace. A 2021 report revealed that three out of four women journalists have been the victim of online harassment, prompting UNESCO to issue recommendations for digital platforms to step up protection.
Digital era dilemma
Ms. Azoulay noted that these challenges are happening at the exact moment when journalists are needed more than ever, as the advent of the digital era has changed the entire information landscape.
Although the Internet has opened new channels for information and expression, it has also provided fertile ground for those seeking to sow disinformation and conspiracy theories.
‘A new crossroads’
“We find ourselves at a new crossroads,” she said. “Our current path is leading us away from informed public debates. Away from the very notion of a shared reality on which it depends. A path towards ever more polarization.”
She called for greater action to ensure that information can remain a public good, noting that UNESCO is supporting some 20 countries to develop educational policies in media and information literacy in the digital era.
The agency also organized a major global conference in Paris in February to discuss draft global guidelines for regulating digital platforms, which will be published later this year.
Democracy under fire
In his keynote address, A.G. Sulzberger, Chairman and Publisher of The New York Times, voiced concern over how threats to press freedom globally ultimately impact multilateralism.
“Without journalists to provide news and information that people can depend on, I fear we will continue to see the unraveling of civic bonds, the erosion of democratic norms, and the weakening of the trust in institutions and in each other that is so essential to the global order,” he said.
Mr. Sulzberger reflected on how the media landscape has evolved since 1993 – a period of optimism characterized by the apparent end of Cold War divisions, the emergence of fledgling democracies, and technological advancements in information and connectivity. News organizations also enjoyed “historic financial strength” and seemed well positioned to inform the public.
‘Avalanche of misinformation’
He said the moment was short-lived as the same technology that allowed journalists to reach people everywhere also forced many thousands of newspapers to close, and digital outlets that emerged were unable to fill the void, particularly in providing critical local and investigative reporting.
“The Internet also unleashed the avalanche of misinformation, propaganda, punditry and clickbait that now overwhelms our information ecosystem, often drowning out credible journalism and accelerating the decline in societal trust,” he said.
Media censorship and control
Mr. Sulzberger warned that erosion of the free press is almost always followed by democratic erosion.
“And sure enough, this period of weakness for the press has coincided with destabilized democracies and emboldened autocracies. And when democracy erodes, you can be sure that the free press will be the first target,” he said.
“All over the world autocrats and those who aspire to join their ranks have used censorship, media repression, and attacks on journalists to consolidate power. That’s because gaining control of information is essential to gaining control of everything else,” he added.
He provided examples from across the globe, including Russia, where “journalists who dare to even acknowledge the war in Ukraine face long prison terms.”
He also highlighted the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Yekaterinburg last month for alleged spying, saying the former Times journalist “remains in Russian custody for sham charges and should be released.”
Support independent journalism
Mr. Sulzberger told UN Member States that countering the worldwide assault on the press will only be solved if they take action.
“For nations with a strong tradition of a free press, including the United States, this means leaders standing up to secure legal protections for independent reporters and their sources,” he said.
“For nations where reporting the truth remains perilous, this means the international community must make clear that we’ll call out and punish the crackdowns and attacks against journalists no matter where they occur.”
He further emphasized the need to address the challenges facing the press, including developing clear financial models for sustaining independent journalism.
“We still need a commitment from the digital giants to elevate independent journalism and ensure it stands apart from untrustworthy information on their platforms,” he added. “And we still need more of the public to value independent journalism enough to support it with their time, their money and their trust.”