Little cause for celebration this World Press Freedom Day

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Today marks the 26th World Press Freedom Day, drawing attention to the state of press freedom both within South Africa and the rest of the world. The first World Press Freedom Day was held on this day in 1993, providing the world with a platform to inform people of the violations of press freedom taking place around the world. Twenty six years later the media and media freedom faces increasing attack from repressive government regimes, while rising mistrust of the media and the scourge of ‘fake news’ and disinformation undermine trust in many media outlets operating in an otherwise relatively free environment.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), founded in 1985, has been a frontrunner in the fight for freedom of information. Using the World Press Freedom Index, the RSF monitors the level of freedom available to the media in 180 countries. Sadly for South Africa, our ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has slipped by three spots this year, from 28 to 31, with the RSF describing our press freedom as “guaranteed but fragile”. Although we’ve slipped, we can still consider ourselves fortunate to be among the only 9% of the world’s population that live in a country where press freedom is considered to be good or satisfactory, according to the RSF.

Reasons for the decline in our country include state monitoring and the harassment and intimidation of journalists trying to cover subjects involving the ruling ANC party, government finances, redistribution of land and corruption. The index also noted the “increase in abusive language and hate speech against journalists by an opposition leader” in reference to statements made by EFF leader Julius Malema last year.

Looking globally, the RSF index has fallen by 11% in the past five years. This drop, the RSF explained, was also partially due to the very large populations of some of the countries in the lower positions. India, which is ranked 140th and is coloured red, and China, which is ranked 177th and is coloured black, have a combined population of 2.7 billion, whereas Norway, the country ranked first in the index, has only 5.2 million inhabitants.

Notably and of some concern due to its global influence, the United States (US) has joined the ranks of those countries considered “problematic”, falling from 45th to 48th. Reasons cited for this were the increased number of attacks on journalists, driven at least partially by US President Donald Trump’s own attacks on media outlets, claims of “fake news” whenever criticised and for calling the press an “enemy of the American people” .

Far more positively, Ethiopia jumped by 40 places to 110th position after a change of government allowed many detained journalists and bloggers to be released.

In the lead up to today, German news outlet Deutsche Welle published an article on the 10 most urgent press freedom issues in the world right now. Among the top 10 across the globe, one case is on our doorstep in neighbouring Mozambique. Radio journalist Amade Abubacar was arrested in January and has been held in detention without trial ever since. His ‘crime’ was to photograph families fleeing militant attacks in Cabo Delgado province.

“None of humankind’s big problems – whether global warming, corruption or gender inequality – can be solved without information that is freely and independently reported and reliable, in other words, without quality journalism,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “This situation is very worrying for journalists and above all for all those human beings who are being deprived of their right to information.”

You can view more on the World Press Freedom Index here: