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30th Press Freedom Day Champions Medium as 'Driver' of Human Rights

FILE - United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, delivers a press statement to reporters after a meeting of envoys from more than 20 countries on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2023.

May 3 marks three decades since the United Nations established World Press Freedom Day. This year, the day is being commemorated under the theme "Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other human rights."

While the U.N. notes there has been significant progress towards achieving press freedom around the world, it warns that the safety of journalists and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack across the globe.

“This day highlights a basic truth: All our freedom depends on press freedom. Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video statement.

“It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. And as this year’s theme reminds us, press freedom represents the very lifeblood of human rights,” he added.

He called on an end to threats, attacks, detention and imprisonment of journalists for doing their work.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says a record number of journalists were imprisoned in 2022, with the top five jailers being Iran, China, Myanmar, Turkey and Belarus.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea remained the region’s worst jailer, ranking 9th globally.

In January, radio presenter Martinez Zogo was killed in Cameroon, while the editor of The Chronicles newspaper, John Ntwali, was killed in Rwanda.

FILE - Journalists pay their respect to their colleague Martinez Zogo, who was found dead after being abducted, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Jan. 23, 2023.
FILE - Journalists pay their respect to their colleague Martinez Zogo, who was found dead after being abducted, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Jan. 23, 2023.

Lewis Mudge, central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA long-time rulers feel threatened by reporters who spotlight potentially damaging information.

“That’s being manifested through oppression of journalists. A lot of these rulers don’t want to hear from journalists telling them things they don’t want to hear,” Mudge said.

William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring Africa, which analyzes the state of press freedom across the continent, said countries like Ghana, Namibia and South Africa enjoy relatively high levels of media freedom, but “journalism itself seems to be under existential threat.”

At a time when there is need for credible and accurate information, Bird said repressive governments and other “bad actors” are making widespread use of social media to spread lies and distortions.

“To counter that you need time, energy, resources and critically thinking, engaged, inquisitive people, and those people need to get paid as well. And yet we don’t seem to be finding too many models for that,” he said.

Right groups say legislation to curb cybercrime and to regulate the use of social media is also being used to curtail press freedom.

“In countries like Zimbabwe, the introduction of the new Cyber and Data Protection Act, which was enacted in December 2021, has been used to intimidate and harass journalists for doing their work and threatens to curtail media freedom further,” Robert Shivambu, Amnesty International’s southern Africa media manager, said.

Speaking at the recent UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference, Tawfik Jelassi, the agency’s assistant director-general for communication and information, said that attacks on journalists are getting more complex despite efforts to help resolve issues surrounding their safety.

“These cardinal efforts have over time contributed to promoting freedom of expression, defending freedom of expression and fostering the safety of journalists,” he said.

Jelassi championed the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, established to protect media workers and end crimes committed against them.

“Press freedom cannot be guaranteed in isolation, its entire democratic space. So, you will notice then that in countries where the other freedom does not exist it’s impossible for press freedom to exist,” he said.

The U.N. recognizes World Press Freedom Day as an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess its state across the world, defend independent media and pay tribute to journalists who have died in the line of duty.

Reporters Maureen Ojiambo, Kwangu Liwewe and Darren Taylor contributed to this report.