The fight for press freedom never ends
It was an all-too-rare victory for press freedom in a year when a global pandemic and a growing number of extremists who have journalists in their sights have combined to threaten those who spend their lives and careers in bring the truth to their readers and viewers.
An independent and free press is the foundation of a democracy, ensuring accountability and transparency and exposing injustice. But this year, World Press Freedom Day is more ambitious – a time to take stock, to celebrate small triumphs like Minneapolis, but also to see that around the world press freedom has taken a cut.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index, released last week by Reporters Without Borders, found that news coverage was “completely blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries and “limited” in 59 others. This represents 132 countries out of the 180 nations included in the survey.
“The pandemic has been used as a motive to block journalists’ access to sources of information and reports on the ground,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary general Christophe Deloire told a press conference. online press, announcing this year’s index. “This closing of access contradicts the basic principle of journalism.”
Even more worrying, he added, “We can’t even believe that access will be restored when the pandemic is over.”
Autocrats around the world have used the pandemic to tighten control over social media. China remains in its usual cellar dweller location at 177 for its continued internet censorship and relentless propaganda efforts. Elsewhere, governments have banned the publication of “unofficial” reports of the pandemic – Egypt (ranked 166), El Salvador (82) and Tanzania (124) were among them.
And Donald Trump may be gone from the White House, but the bogus cries of ‘fake news’ still resonate among the autocrats most to fear from honest reporting – Filipino Rodrigo Duterte, Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega and Hungarian Viktor Orban, including them. In Hungary (92 on the RSF list), the publication of “fake news” is now punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. And, of course, “false” is nonsense Orban says that is wrong.
Perhaps most troubling is that the annual list is no longer about the usual suspects — but on the fact that its color-coded map has fewer “white” dots — indicating a good climate for the free press — than at any time since the organization adopted its method of analysis in 2013.
While much of Scandinavia tops the list, other European Union countries have slipped down the rankings, such as Greece, where a prominent journalist was killed by execution in April, and Germany, where journalists are frequently targeted by right-wing extremists.
And that, of course, brings us to the United States and its not-so-proud 44th. The US Press Freedom Tracker, run by a coalition of press freedom groups, has currently documented at least 29 journalists who have been arrested or detained while reporting this year alone. (Some 15 journalists were arrested by police while covering protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, following the shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer during a traffic stop in April.) Last year more than 400 journalists were assaulted here – just for doing their job – more than 100 said they had intentionally damaged their equipment on the job and 137 were arrested or detained.
Compared to some dark corners of the world where journalists are thrown into a cell and never heard from again, this nation remains a bastion of freedom – where triumphs like the first coverage of the Chauvin trial are still possible. But it’s far from perfect.
Today, there are still too many places where press titles are not a guarantee of access but an invitation to abuse.
And our colleagues around the world, armed with laptops, recorders and cameras, continue to do their jobs, despite the obvious dangers. We are indeed in the same boat – pushing together the envelope that is freedom of the press not for ourselves, but for all those who deserve to have access to information and to the unvarnished truths that make better government.
Editorials represent the opinions of the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.