“The press is not only the most powerful weapon against tyranny and despotism, but also the most effective and active instrument of progress and civilization.” The phrase, which sounds perfectly current due to the situation that anguishes Europe as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adds almost 200 years since it was pronounced by Francisco Zarco, a Mexican deputy, politician and journalist. This quote underlines the importance of the information media for democracy and highlights the fact that today, May 3, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day.
The state of health of democracy in any advanced society is always measured by the thermometer of its freedom of the press. The work carried out by the media is essential to protect citizens from corruption, propaganda and misinformation.
Two months after the first Russian attack on Ukrainian territory, the whole world has been able to verify the difference between a free press and a subjugated one; the contrast between the invitation to the media by the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, to come to his country to tell the truth about the horrors and atrocities committed by the Russian troops; and the traps and impediments, in the form of unfair and arbitrary laws, that his namesake in Russia, Vladimir Putin, has imposed and that have managed to scare away some of the most important international media from his country, in addition to silencing the critical voices of the Russian public opinion. Two very different ways of understanding the role of the press.
US Senator Hiram Johnson said in 1917, in very troubled times, that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” And, unfortunately, it has been revealed in the armed conflict that we are now suffering on European soil. The Kremlin has not only declared war on Ukraine, but also on journalists. The new Russian law that threatens information professionals with 15 years in prison for “disseminating false news” about the war in Ukraine -read, simply, “for informing”- shakes the pillars on which free exercise is based of journalism.
Where press freedom is respected, the truth emerges; wherever it is severed, lies and manipulation end up prevailing.
UNESCO speaks in this same direction in its latest annual report on the profession, entitled Journalism is a common good. In it, this United Nations body underlines the indisputable importance of “verified and reliable information.” The flagrant misinformation that Moscow has displayed to justify its brutal attack represents a serious threat to Western democracies and urges us all to redouble our efforts in the strongest rejection of all forms of pressure, coercion, censorship or interference in the media Communication.
The work carried out by the media is essential to protect citizens from corruption, propaganda and disinformation
At stake is nothing less than the right of citizens to free, truthful and independent information. Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, considers the role of “free and professional journalists in disseminating information” to be essential. A powerful weapon against misinformation and harmful content. Free journalism is the best tool to combat misinformation, biased messages and harmful content. The fiery defense of that freedom constitutes one of the reasons for being of the Information Media Association (AMI).
And, fortunately, we are not alone in this cause. The prestigious Swedish Academy awarded, in its latest edition, the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, the Russian Dimitri Muratov and the Filipino Maria Ressa for their fight for freedom of expression wherever it is threatened as an “indispensable condition for democracy and lasting peace. This recognition meant, by extension, an express support for the brave fight that so many professionals and media carry out, in adverse circumstances, in many parts of the world.
Interestingly, just a few months after this award was granted, Nóvaya Gazeta, Muratov’s independent daily, has been forced to suspend its publication after receiving a “warning” from the Russian authorities that, using legal instruments of coercion, shamelessly attack the freedom of expression of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and his colleagues.
The UNESCO report highlights that journalism is a common good for society and that States, the private sector and civil society must commit the necessary means to protect and sustain it.
Although in countries like Spain we have achieved high levels of freedom in the exercise of our work, some of the data provided by this report on the threat that, in general, hangs over this right in the world are especially worrying. The setback experienced in the last five years, with a decrease in freedom of the press in 85% of the world’s population, sets off alarms and forces deep reflection and open and public denunciation.
The governments of 44 countries have passed laws that, like the one promoted by Putin in Russia, represent a serious risk to freedom of expression online. The information media from all over the world must unite our efforts and demand actions that allow us to recover and guarantee the required standards of freedom and democracy. Little by little, line by line, headline by headline, news by news, copy by copy.
The Information Media Association supports and respects freedom of the press as an essential pillar of a democratic and transparent society. For this reason, taking up Zarco’s words, we believe that the press must continue to be an effective weapon against tyrants and the powerful, capable of flying to establish democracy in any corner of the world. And today must be a day to call for reflection and the commitment of all to raise the flag of freedom of the press. Thank you, colleagues in the media, for fighting every day for it. Thank you, dear readers, for joining us on this flight.