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On World Press Freedom Day, UN says press freedom is under attack

While the internet has provided more channels for information and expression, it's also created avenues for misinformation, polarization and violence.
On World Press Freedom Day, UN says press freedom is under attack
Posted at 3:27 PM, May 03, 2023

It's World Press Freedom Day, but the state of journalistic freedom isn't very good.

Since 1993, the United Nations has recognized May 3 as a day to not only celebrate the benefits a free press has on democracy but also take a closer look at the status of press freedom around the globe. This year's focus: the connection between press freedom and human rights.

"Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice," Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video address. "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."

President Joe Biden echoed the secretary-general's statement, saying the United States stands behind the freedom of all journalists, "American or not." 

"Courageous journalists around the world have shown time and again that they will not be silenced or intimidated. The United States sees them and stands with them," the president said in a statement. "That’s why we’re providing more resources than ever to support digital and physical security training for journalists — because no reporter should fear for his or her life because of the work they do."

A grim milestone for journalists

According to the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, 86 journalists and media workers were killed last year, mainly outside war zones, making 2022 the deadliest year on record for the profession.

Director General Audrey Azoulay said oftentimes, those killed were at home with their family.

"For the international community, it is first and foremost a question of combating the impunity that still surrounds crimes of which journalists are victims, with nearly nine out of ten murders of journalists going unpunished," she said in a statement.

The digital-era dilemma

Azoulay noted that the increase in violence toward journalists coincides with the rise of a digital era that has transformed the information landscape. A 2021 report revealed that 3 in every 4 female journalists have been a victim of online harassment.

While the internet has opened more avenues for information and expression, it's also provided new channels for misinformation and violence.

"We find ourselves at a new crossroads," Azoulay said. "Our current path is leading us away from 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 regulations on digital platforms to protect the press and ensure that information can remain a public good.

Combatting misinformation

There have also been significant changes in how people consume news. A 2022 poll shows the favorite news source for Gen Z is social media — with 50% reporting daily use. Network and cable TV news came in fifth and sixth place, while newspapers were the least likely source of news for the younger generation. 

SEE MORE: Where Gen Z gets its news: Social media

In his keynote address to the U.N., The New York Times chairman A.G. Sulzberger said the growing concern is the amount of misinformation on those platforms — and the ease with which it can be found. 

"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. "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 provided examples, including Russia, where journalists face persecution for simply mentioning the war in Ukraine. He also highlighted the case of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in the country last month for alleged spying.

Supporting independent journalism

Sulzberger told the U.N. that countering the global assault on the press starts with more legal protections for journalists and their sources. He also emphasized the need for more financial support of independent journalism, to help it stand out from the surge of misinformation found on the internet.

“We still need a commitment from the digital giants to elevate independent journalism and ensure it stands apart from untrustworthy information on their platforms,” Sulzberger said. “And we still need more of the public to value independent journalism enough to support it with their time, their money and their trust.”

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