3 May is World Press Freedom Day. It is a day in honour and in support of one of the most fundamental of rights – freedom of press. The right to express freely and share information without fear of consequences. The right enshrined in Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marking the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of principles for freedom of press compiled by African newspaper journalists in 1991. It is on this day that the governments of the world are reminded to uphold this sacred right, and for people to defend the forth pillar of democracy, the media, from attacks on their independence.
The United Nations has chosen “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies” as the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day. In times that independent media is under attack, all around the globe, it is more important than ever to remember the principles by which journalists are bound and the invaluable service they offer communities. Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunghe, who was assassinated in 2009, described free media as “a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel”, adding: “From [them] you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future”.*
On their part, journalists and media, without whom truth could be long lost in the world of politics and corruption, owe their loyalty to the people. Honesty, impartiality, professional ethics, and a responsibility to provide verified and reliable information are inseparable elements of journalism. There are many who tirelessly work and offer balanced and fair news to the public, abiding by the principles. It is this day that we thank them as citizens who rely on their conscious to know the reality of our world.
The authorities on the other hand, are to be reminded of the responsibility they have towards citizens in ensuring safety and dignity of the media and journalists. Attacks of any sort on the Media and journalists and limitations imposed on them for any reason other than specific, narrow and legally unambiguous ones for cases of protecting individuals or the public, should be condemned. Reporters, cartoonists, and news outlets are not the enemy, if what they show is not what we like.
Now, maybe more than ever, we need reliable and well-researched journalism, to expose the truth and engage the public. Such journalism can only thrive in an environment that is enabling towards free, independent and pluralistic media.**
In Malaysia, like many other countries, today there is growing concern over the spread of “fake news”. There are many balanced and fair media outlets that abide by the professional principles who are responsibly offering verified information, and are to be commended on their work on this day and ever other day of the year. With the elections coming up, their work will be even more difficult, to dig through thousands of false information to find the truth and give to the public. The authorities are also trying to tackle the phenomena of fake news, their attempts can at times be excessive and target the wrong group, the media. It is vital to remember on this World Press Freedom Day 2017, that at this fight they are allies. The public needs media to keep the power in check, and the authorities to protect the people from people who intentionally distort truth for their gain.
* ‘And Then They Came For Me’, the Sunday Leader, 11 January 2009, http://www.thesundayleader.lk/20090111/editorial-.htm
** UNESCO, “World Press Freedom Day 2017: Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies – Concept Note”