One can be forgiven a roll of the eyes when every day is a national day for something. We make no apology, though, for reminding us all that May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.
Journalists deal in facts, and because facts are often uncomfortable, those who unearth them and disseminate them are attacked. That imbalance is not new.
What is new is the mainstream assault on journalists and press freedom. Possession of the facts in too many parts of the world has turned deadly.
These threats represent not a narrow assault on inconvenient troublemakers but an attack on people who connect society using nothing sharper than a camera, keyboard and pen. The health of democratic institutions, and wider participatory democracy, is directly linked to an independent press.
Canada still sits high on the table of countries enjoying relative press freedom, even if the secrecy of court work and lame access to information laws are two problems. Another is the anonymous rape and death threats made on social media against newsroom staff. Sometimes reporters are followed by private investigators hired by big companies. These are intimidation tactics that threaten our way of life.
Journalists in Canada have also been injured (Michel Auger to name but one, shot in the back in Montreal in 2000) and murdered (Tara Singh Hayer, Surrey, B.C., in 1998) because of their work. Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald was killed covering the war in Afghanistan in 2009.
In some ways, it has always been in vogue to shoot the messenger. But now more countries, and their institutions, that were previously considered relatively supportive of a free press are facing new threats.
The president of the United States is attempting to normalize attacks on journalists and the media. Numerous studies show that his behaviour is a catalyst for the polarization of political debate. It creates a closed and incurious society of us versus them, ironically at a time when we have never enjoyed more free access to argument and facts.
One reason the media face such attacks is because, no matter the side of the debate, or in extreme cases, which end of the gun you face, everyone knows that journalism matters.
Of course, news organizations must do a better job of explaining themselves and showing their work. Interest in our business has always been high, when we tell our own story well. Movies such as The Killing Fields and more recently The Post fascinate the audience. In real life, meeting brave subjects of stories, such as Ava Williams, who was at the centre of The Globe and Mail Unfounded investigation, brings fresh appreciation for what journalism can offer.
But too many journalists and their subjects are not free to tell those stories. In Malta, the car-bomb murder of an investigative reporter, Daphne Caruana Galizia, has rightly shaken that Mediterranean archipelago. Darker regimes such as Russia and Turkey continue to murder and jail journalists who write inconvenient truths.
So far this year, close to 30 journalists have paid with their lives for doing their jobs. Since April 25th, 11 were killed in Afghanistan in multiple attacks targeting reporters. Others are missing in Syria, presumed kidnapped or dead. It is a living hell for their families and colleagues to face this silence.
In Myanmar, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were taken away to face trial because they uncovered proof of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. These two men provided among the first evidence of what was going on in this too-closed state. It was by any definition vital journalism. Today both men face prison sentences longer than the 10 years handed down to the culprits of the massacre that Reuters revealed to the world.
It is rotten that the honorary Canadian citizen and one-time moral leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, would choose silence over protest. She knows as well as any leader on Earth the role the press has in giving a voice to those who would otherwise not be heard.
By strangling those who put their lives on the line to tell the truth, the world’s most dangerous corners can only slide further into paroxysmal attacks against the very idea of freedom, and of humanity itself.
Please remember journalists, today, and every day.
World News Day is a new initiative that builds on the UN’s World Press Freedom Day to celebrate the stories, the people, the reporting and the professional news organizations that are dedicated to changing lives, challenging the status quo, holding those in power to account and supporting freedom and democracy.
The Globe and Mail, May 2, 2018