Is World Press Freedom Day still significant?

A measure of one’s capacity to make decisions and act according to its own logic and distinguishes independent media from state media. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
A measure of one’s capacity to make decisions and act according to its own logic and distinguishes independent media from state media. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

World Press Freedom day is celebrated annually and globally but is the meaning still significant to us?

Do democratic governments truly apprehend, conceptualise and apply media freedom and independence?

What is real media independence? Let’s look at the brief exploration of what the term entails.

Media independence can be defined as the “absence of external control and influence on an institution or individual working in the media. A measure of one’s capacity to make decisions and act according to its own logic and distinguishes independent media from state media”.

Declared in the 31st ranking of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, South Africa has a satisfying amount of press freedom history which has ultimately led our media status to partly free.

Press freedom in South Africa is guaranteed but still in a fragile state.

Although as compared to many other countries globally, South Africa has set a good and satisfactory example of what media freedom should be and how it should be rightfully not forgetting fairly exercised.

The media plays a vital role. That role is to investigate and share information such as public affairs, ideas and monitor the doings of the government and share the findings with the citizens.

It is crucial that journalists and media workers globally are enabled the right to exercise media freedom.

Media freedom has a significant importance, it is the revelation of the truth without boundaries.

However, complete media freedom isn’t as accessible as it is easily spoken about.

Many governments worldwide are a hindrance to the media freedom in their countries.

These governments are intimidated by journalists and media power houses as they often expose their delinquency and deceitfulness to the citizens, they reveal what is truly going on behind those flamboyant suits and closed doors.

Doors that are often, if not always shut out of the public eye.

The governments incline towards manipulating the media to work in their favour, in a manner that will be convenient to them and raise them efficiently and congruously in the public.

In essence, they restrict the media to limit and censor their news to promote their manifestos – manifestos that serves as nothing but propaganda.

To put this into reality we can look at the upcoming national elections in South Africa. In early March 2019 the ruling party, African National Congress and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a falling out about media matters.

Former Minister of Policing Fikile Mbalula had protested about too little coverage on the SABC about the African National Congress. To escalate matters the ANC was even accused of bullying the SABC editors about the broadcasts.

When asked to comment about this alleged accusation of bullying they said in their defence that the SABC was “alarmist at best and malicious at worst, with the sole intention of projecting the ANC in a negative light”.

The country that has diverted all attention to themselves due to the struggle of a free media is, Turkey.

To this day the Turkish government still continues to curb media freedom, if anything their media is oppressed, jailed and tyrannised.

On the World Press Freedom Index 2019 ranking, Turkey is placed at 157 of 180 countries, which makes their media one of the least independent on the list.

The extent of oppression in Turkey has few if any precedence in the history reaching to the graphic designers, cameramen and other employees of media.

Turkey, the country where a professional journalist is either jailed, jobless or murdered for exercising the right of free media, media that isn’t restricted for the convenience of the government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has a declared a witch hunt against its biggest critics: journalists and media houses since July 2016.

Turkey’s media system which had been characterised by clientelism, conglomeration and politicisation since the 80s, deteriorated even more during the Justice and Development Party regime.

This deterioration was the result of changing of media ownership structures, record journalist imprisonment, exploitation of broadcast, internet and social media, and press laws to silence oppositional.

Turkey is the world’s bigger jailer of anti-state media journalists. As stated by the 2016 prison census, 259 journalists have been sentenced to jail and 81 of them being from Turkey.

Turkey has failed to restore press freedom after ending emergency rule in July 2018, but rather laws and other tools have been developed to extend restrictions imposed on the media following July 2016 failed coup.

Spending more than 12 months in prison while awaiting trail and eventually being sentenced to a long jail sentence has been quite typical.

In even more deficient cases, life imprisonment being inevitable with no possibility of a pardon or even proper legal representation.

The majority of Turkey’s jailed journalists are charged with terrorism related offences for which prosecutors routinely produce only journalist critical articles and social media activity as evidence.

They face routine violation of their rights as defendants in criminal proceedings.

The Independent Press Institute reveals that courts in some cases deny journalists the right to appear in court, ignoring rules on deliberating in private and obstructing the work of defence lawyers.

Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse.

The rule of law is a fading memory in the “New Turkey” of paramount presidential authority. Censorship of websites and online social media has reached unprecedented levels and the authorities are now trying to bring online video services under control.

If Erdogan’s government’s plan isn’t imprisonment it resorts to shutting down media houses which results in thousands of job losses.

By the survey conducted by the Union of Journalists there has been a loss of 2500 jobs which include media workers and journalists and 156 media houses shut down.

The IPI said that, through the closure of media outlets and printing houses and a combination of media distortion, economic pressure and friendly media ownership.

Turkey’s government has brought 95% of the country’s media under its influence.

It is very evident that the government is ignorant and arrogant, seeing that they will stop at nothing to censoring the media in their country.

China and North Korea are even worse than Turkey. They are under even tighter control and the citizens are kept in ignorance.

China and North Korea are under the totalitarianism of President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un respectively. The two countries have close to none to fair media independence.

The governments have succeeded in imposing total control of the news and information, including online surveillance that is fed to their citizens.

In North Korea, it has been taken as far as the adoption of technical measures on their mobile phones and smartphones, these measures ensure that the government has complete control over communications and files transmitted over the national intranet.

The citizens are only fed what is appropriate according to the dictators and are kept in total darkness and ignorance of real news.

On a lighter and positive perspective Norway allows total media independence in their country. Norway can be seen as almost faultless regarding this matter.

Article 100 of the 1814 constitution in Norway laid the ground for media freedom. Today the media and journalists are not subject to any censoring or are under any form of political pressure.

A media ownership transparency law has been put into place since 2016, this law is less restrictive of concentration of media ownership and is governed by legislation on competition.

What is the reason for all countries being unable to exercise this right of total media independence, after all an entire day was selected for media independence to be commemorated?

May 3 was declared by the United Nations General Assembly to be World Press Freedom Day.

This day is meant to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of press and to remind all governments that they ought to respect the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights.

South Africa is a representative at the United Nations and was elected for the third time to serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council period of 2019-2020.

As a representative why can’t more be done in freeing all the jailed countries?

South Africa should take a stand for total media independence and lead by example.

South Africans should not allow the likes of the ANC to bully or manipulate the content broadcasted by the SABC.

If anything South Africa should reflect on the privilege that they have and strive towards making this privilege available and permanent not only for themselves but for all countries internationally.

After all, National Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee said: “Journalists should be allowed to do their work without any fear, intimidation, abuse, harassment or detention.”

Yet no efforts or means of that statement are being seen. What is the National Press Club doing to defend the rights of journalists and media people and institutions globally?

The National Press Club states that they stand for being globally aware and locally relevant, yet citizens are crying.

Crying for media freedom in their countries and for their journalists whose efforts to achieve that have landed them without a job, imprisoned or murdered.

The South African National Editors Forum is also an organisation that has the power to change of all of this.

The forum itself states that “your words have power only if you give them freedom”, but are they empowering others or is it just about South Africa?

If so they would be contradicting themselves a great deal because they state that their purpose is also international.

It is absolute nonsense if all these organisations that claim to vouch for international media freedom are doing nothing about the parts of the world that are suffering in silence.

“To limit the press is to insult a nation; to prohibit reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves: such a prohibition ought to fill them with disdain.” – Claude Adrien Helvetius.

Phoswa is a researcher and creative writer for SIP Media

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