Defend Truth

MEDIA UNDER SIEGE OP-ED

It is our collective responsibility to defend and promote press freedom worldwide

It is our collective responsibility to defend and promote press freedom worldwide
A poster held by Pakistani journalists on World Press Freedom Day in Peshawar on 3 May 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Arshad Arbab)

Press freedom is under siege like never before. Democracy, human rights and free media go hand in hand. You can’t win one without the other.

In 1980, I embarked on my journalistic journey at the tender age of 18. I vividly recall the bustling energy of the newspaper editorial office, where seasoned journalists puffed cigars and tapped away on typewriters. It was a sanctuary, a bastion of freedom in Sweden, where I found my footing as the new kid on the block. During the day I was an aspiring journalist. In the evenings I organised fundraisers to support the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. 

Fast forward 44 years, and I serve as the Swedish ambassador to South Africa. As a veteran journalist, I can proudly state that Sweden and South Africa are two countries that understand the importance of, and therefore the need to defend, principles of free media and independent investigative journalism. On World Press Freedom Day (3 May) we can celebrate our shared commitment to protecting this fundamental pillar of democracy while acknowledging the stark realities faced by journalists worldwide. 

In the age of misinformation and authoritarian crackdown on media and civil society, the freedom of the press is under siege like never before. Authoritarian regimes brazenly target journalists and independent media outlets, seeking to silence dissent and control the narrative. Countries like Russia, China and Iran consistently rank among the worst offenders. The proliferation of social media, with its algorithmic echo chambers, further exacerbates the spread of falsehoods, drowning out reasoned discourse in a sea of sensationalism. Reasoned debate and political accountability – vital for all democracies – are shut out of the discourse. 

The fruits of this siege are becoming more and more apparent to us. Freedom House estimates that just 13% of the world’s population has access to a free press. Elsewhere, in the news deserts beyond, people are forced to navigate a murky world of rumours, lies, conspiracy and pseudoscience. Likewise, other surveys, such as the latest Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, reveal a concerning trend of declining media freedom in several countries. Journalists and their families risk imprisonment, violence, and even being murdered for daring to report on sensitive issues or criticising governments. With authoritarian governments tightly controlling the media, censoring content and silencing dissenting voices through surveillance and censorship mechanisms, the bravery displayed by journalists is a reminder of the dangers in the pursuit of speaking truth to power.

Read more in Daily Maverick: State of the Media

The assault on press freedom affects not only journalists but also our fragile and vulnerable democracies. As we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, it is our collective responsibility to defend and promote press freedom worldwide. Governments, civil society organisations and individuals must unite to safeguard journalists’ safety, uphold the principles of free expression, and ensure access to information for all. Only by protecting and promoting press freedom can we build inclusive and prosperous democracies where truth, transparency and accountability prevail. For my country, Sweden, this is not just a national interest but a global imperative.

This year, World Press Freedom Day is dedicated to the importance of journalism and freedom of expression in the current global environmental crisis. Misinformation and disinformation about ecological issues lead to a lack of public and political support for much-needed climate action and more effective policies. A robust media landscape can encourage civic engagement and informed public discourse, empowering citizens to actively define and contribute to a just and green transition. To achieve sustainable development, journalists must be supported to report accurately, timely and comprehensively on climate and environmental issues, their consequences and possible solutions.

After 14 years as a professional journalist, I was elected to Sweden’s parliament in 1994 – a landmark year for South Africa’s democracy. My life story has proven that democracy, human rights and free media go hand in hand. You can’t win one without the other. New challenges persist, but today, I feel grateful for all the journalists who fought and continue to fight for our rights. We have a responsibility to follow in their footsteps. DM

Håkan Juholt is the ambassador of Sweden to South Africa.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Sirs,

    You estimate that just 13% of the world’s population has access to a free press; yet I would wager that the percentage of South Africans who have access to a truly free press, is considerably less than 13%.

    Certainly, if your reading of newspapers, does not include a few – two of which must include The Daily Maverick, and one quality international paper (NYT, SMH, SCS, WP, LAT, Economist, Guardian come to mind), then that reader is not getting even close to getting sufficient coverage to amount to having access “to a truly free press”.

    Less than 1%, here in SA, I would venture.

  • Richard Owen says:

    The landscape of public media has exploded and become a free for all with everyone having access to publish and consume on platforms such as X, YouTube etc. Disinformation and conspiracy theories have proliferated. Unresearched opinion, personal prejudice and hate speech are everywhere.
    As a result, the rational element of human consciousness is overwhelmed by all this “noise” and our capacity for informed debate and reasoned decision making is compromised. We are now all flying in the dark!
    A global and globally accessible, neutral body, linked to information sharing, is needed to constantly rank information / publications / online sites with regard to the degree of factual content as compared to opinion. Hopefully this will allow us a bit more light on our flight through the murk of media.

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