The UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference declared that May 3 would be observed as the World Press Freedom Day. In a statement the United Nations has pointed out that even after nearly 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its signing. Consequently, May 3 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It has also become a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.
In this regard one is also reminded of the observation made by Nelson Mandela that "a critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of democracy".
This year, consistent with this ethos, on May 3, 2021, media activists from various countries through their articles and their observations in the print and electronic media tried to highlight the existing state of media and press freedom globally.
It would be pertinent at this point to also draw attention to how the reduction in the freedom of using the internet in Myanmar and in certain areas of India -- in Jammu and Kashmir in particular -- has attracted the attention of the world press.
It may be recalled that after the Myanmar military seized power from the elected government in February, the first measure it undertook was to reduce the already restricted free flow of information in that country that had continued since 2017. It obstructed news stations, temporarily shuttered phone and internet access, and blocked social media platforms. Many journalists were also imprisoned and news organisations charged with false accusations. This has led many critics to observe that independent information has been difficult to access. It may be noted here that according to Michael De Dora there has been more than "500 internet shutdowns across dozens of countries over the last three years".
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has termed such shutdowns as having serious potential consequences for press freedom. They have been giving serious attention to this unfortunate dynamic because it is reducing the ability of journalists to undertake their tasks effectively. This includes being able to contact sources, check fact data, file stories, or circulate relevant and reliable news from different online platforms.
In this context, steps taken by the central government in Delhi in August 2019 regarding the transformations that were taking place in Jammu and Kashmir left many all over the world wondering about the measures that the Indian government was planning to initiate for revoking a constitutional provision that granted the contested region's governing autonomy. This measure was undertaken to bring it under federal control. What surprised many was the manner in which it was done-- through internet shutdown and communications blackout. This blackout lasted till 2020.
Availing of such internet shutdown or limiting its use has been on the rise all over the world. Observers have noted that the government of Uganda, during its January 2021 elections, suspended internet access. We have also seen how in Belarus, the authorities in September 2020 reduced the effectiveness of local news websites. Such demeaning measures have also been seen in Ethiopia in response to protests. Such a measure against internet access has also been seen in recent times in Iran and Indonesia. It has been suggested by some that such government action was undertaken to ensure stability. However, others have disputed such an assumption and mentioned that in reality it was to hold on to power.
It would be also relevant to refer here to another dimension that has emerged pertaining to press freedom. It relates to news regarding how some regions of the world are reporting on the growth of the Covid pandemic. This vital element has gained special status as, according to Sibahle Zuma, "access to accurate information is vitally important during the pandemic so that people can understand how to protect themselves and their families, and to hold their governments to account for their response to the health emergency. But it is clear that many governments are instead working to hamper the flow of information. Many governments have used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on the ability of journalists to do their jobs". It has also been underlined that "while there is an understandable need to limit the spread of false information about the virus, claims of 'fake news' are often being used as a smokescreen to imprison journalists and censor independent media organisations critical of governments". Apparently, this scenario has resulted in many journalists being detained in at least 28 African countries and also in South Asia-- in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal..
Such measures, it may be noted, is persuading civil society organisations and also NGOs to become more proactive. They have, in many countries, including those in South Asia, been drawing attention to the fact that it is the moral responsibility of governments all over the world, especially in the developing countries, to defend human rights within the associated matrix of democracy. Some have gone on to also reiterate that undermining the process of circulating information affects indirectly the basic rights associated with freely practising religious belief and exchanging information and ideas.
In this context, Azadeh Shahshahani has also noted that unnecessary and over surveillance by any government of its citizens does not always improve the safety of its citizens.
In recent days we have, in this regard, been exposed to supporters of civil liberties and defenders of Black, immigrant, and Muslim communities in the United States, particularly in the US South, urging caution against shadowy supervision by government institutions on the plea of fighting terrorism. This dynamics according to Azadeh Shahshahani has gained momentum in the recent past also because "the expansion of surveillance authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) continues to allow federal agents to circumvent the rules of criminal procedure when targeting people suspected of terrorism".
Analysts in this regard have observed that in different parts of the United States, law enforcement agencies have apparently not only set up large data-mining enterprises designed to share surveillance information with federal agencies but also created legal loopholes that permit discriminatory surveillance practices. It is understood that the Trump Administration sought to use the FBI's counterterrorism authorities to target Black protesters during the George Floyd demonstrations.
In this regard, some legal analysts have pointed out that several factors have helped FISA in carrying out their activities. They include the US Supreme Court's ruling in Laird vs Tatum (1972) that surveillance of public activities, in and of itself, is not a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Some have also referred to loopholes like the so-called Third Party Doctrine which permits surveillance of information being disclosed to third parties - including telecommunications companies.
It appears that the democratic governance of the USA through the FISA, has managed to use the law to ensure both widespread surveillance and to avoid facing meaningful consequences even when the law is violated. This is not happening only in the US. In several countries in Europe, South East and Far East Asia, the existing surveillance authorities are being used to target those who are considered to be participating in anti-state activities. Some efforts in this regard can however be considered slightly acceptable if it is seen that political reasons are being used as instruments to create communal hatred and instability.
One must not overlook here the reference by Raghbendra Jha to Edmund Burke who "called the press the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of democracy, with an oversight role on the remaining three pillars - the legislature, executive and the judiciary". It is generally believed that this equation should enable the press to have "unimpeded access to the other three pillars so that the citizenry could be kept informed at all times".
However, it is important for all of us to understand that unlike the time of Burke, today's world is facing not just a potential erosion of press freedom but also other challenges.
The print media is in jeopardy due to digital transformation. Its readership is shrinking. Concentration of ownership and control is also creating a paradigm where profitable markets will be served first, viz., global or at best national audiences. Consequently, there has been erosion in news reporting, particularly on issues affecting local populations. Local issues are neglected and many local media outlets including newspapers and television channels and radio stations are as such facing dire conditions. This is happening despite access to social media.
Nevertheless, there are some elements and factors that need to be highlighted.
One can agree with the fact that there has to be press freedom and the synergy of right to information. However, at the same time Jha has observed that the continuous 24-hour news cycle forces reporters to publish articles without proper fact-checking. Consequently, even allegedly responsible media houses have had to retract stories because of the lack of proper checking. This leads to a deeper concern. Whereas the privilege of helping the citizenry to form opinions about key public issues lies with journalists, there is an implied responsibility that the information and analysis provided by the journalist is accurate and verifiable. This does not always seem to be the case.
Indeed, some journalists have been accused of spreading "fake news" by pursuing their own agendas when pursuing their vocation. There have been well-known instances of both traditional and social media outlets pursuing political advocacy. As a result, sometimes the difference between "news" and "views" disappear and in many cases we are ill equipped to discern the difference.
This acquires significance for the fourth estate which has to remember that although freedom of the press is precious for society, as with any other freedom, it requires continuous conscious attention so that responsibility, accountability and culpability are not forgotten. This approach can then stop the spread of lethal misinformation. That is required for consolidation of democracy and good governance.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.