May 3, 2022, marks the 29th anniversary of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Conference, which recognizes the challenges of press freedom and journalism safety as well as the importance of the right to circulate opinions without censorship by government. This global recognition of the importance of press freedom comes at a time of grave concern over the future of democracy and open society.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day brings together civil society, government, journalists, academics, lawyers, and technologists to focus on “Journalism Under Digital Siege.” Conference organizers hope to shine a spotlight on the ways in which recent developments in surveillance by state and non-state actors, as well as big data collection and artificial intelligence, affect journalism, freedom of expression, and privacy. Discussion will also center on the many challenges to media viability in digital times, and threats to public trust that arise from digital communications. These issues are anchored in the overall declining state of democracy and the precarious position that journalists have been put in regarding their ability to help support democratic renewal.
Free and open media: the foundation of democracy
Counterpart International supports press freedom by working with media and civil society organizations to strengthen the enabling environment for free and independent media; enhancing digital security capacity for civil society, journalists, and researchers; and providing financial and technical support to cover key policy issues in the public interest to foster citizen engagement and ensure transparency and social accountability needed for good governance.
It’s long been argued that there can be no democracy without a free press. With democracy in retreat globally, so has freedom of the press. For the 16th year in a row, according to Freedom House, the pillars of global freedom—a free press, rule of law, and fair elections—have eroded. Underscoring the worrisome trend, as noted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, currently fewer than 50% of the world’s population lives in what could be considered a democracy. As Freedom House has pointed out in its annual assessment of global media freedom the erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
Rising authoritarianism has coincided with curbs on the press. Without political will and the respect of the rule of law, it’s almost impossible to guarantee press freedom and uphold the rights and protections outlined in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
The dark side of digital
While information and communication technologies signaled much hope for democracy, despite their advances, concerns around what has been dubbed digital authoritarianism have created a whole new set of issues for press freedom advocacy. As explained by DW Akademie, “Digital authoritarianism, a buzzword in recent years, is mostly described as a way for governments to assert power and control information flows through digital tools and the Internet.”
The dangers of digital authoritarianism took center stage at the recent Democracy Summit in which President Biden called on world leaders to help renew democracy, saying, “democracy doesn’t happen by accident, we have to renew it with each generation.” Arguing that we are now at an inflection point wherein backsliding in democracy and human rights makes us vulnerable to the advances of authoritarianism around the world, Biden pointed to the importance of press freedom, independent media, and access to information in global efforts to counter disinformation, fight against corruption, and to help elevate the voices of the most marginalized communities.
The Journalism Under Digital Siege conference underscores the changing nature of journalism. Today’s journalist must not only worry about physical harms and risks, but also must think about surveillance and hacking and the dangers this poses to them and the community around them. Digital technology is ubiquitous and state and non-state actors alike must work together to forge new pathways to learn how democratic, open society, informed by rule of law and human rights can co-exist with our digital world. This won’t be easy.
Counterpart remains steadfast in its support of civil society, which is vital to advocating for and protecting press freedom around the world. Recently, Counterpart, which leads the Global Democracy Coalition with International IDEA, joined 50 organizations to support global democracy strengthening. Its work continues despite the challenges of today’s digital environment and the critical role of journalists in holding governments to account.