2023 marks the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, which was proclaimed by UN General Assembly and the Declaration of Windhoek in 1993. May 3rd is an opportunity to not only celebrate press freedom, but also to remind each other of its importance, assess its condition globally, and pay tribute to the journalists who have faced persecution, imprisonment, and death due to their work.
While there have been significant developments in the state of press freedom and free expression over the last 30 years, ongoing conflicts, crises, and inequalities impact the work of journalists and their safety and impeding all other human rights.
Celebrating, upholding, and promoting press freedom and freedom of expression is crucial in the volatile context of 2023. Growing disinformation and propaganda, facilitated by the rapid technological advances of artificial intelligence pose challenges to the ways in which journalists work and the quest for the truth.
As ever on May 3rd, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published their World Press Freedom Index for 2023, which concluded that ‘journalism is threatened by the fake content industry’, undermining democracy, the rule of law, and all other human rights. Although conditions remain positive for some countries, such as Norway which retains the top spot on RSF’s index, and Ireland which has climbed up to second place, the situation remains dire in places like China, Iran, and Syria.
In this context, the link between press freedom, free expression, and human rights is as obvious and as relevant as it was 30 years ago. The journalists, writers, artists, and human rights activists in the ICORN network are amongst those who know this best. We spoke to radio journalist Wahab Michael Sbhatu from Eritrea, journalist and editor Aslı Ceren Aslan from Turkey, and investigative journalist Safaa Khalaf from Iraq who reflected on the importance of World Press Freedom Day.
ICORN: In what ways do you see press freedom and journalism as drivers for all other human rights?
Wahab Michael Sbhatu: Press freedom and journalism can be the key to all obstacles and crises, and it serves as an instrument of human rights. As long as press freedom and journalism provide a voice for those who are voiceless, it is exactly a human rights instrument.
Aslı Ceren Aslan: Right-wing populist politics, which are on the rise in the world today, are trying to normalise human rights violations and make them a part of life in many countries. Therefore, it is very important for every society to have access to accurate news in order to secure rights and freedoms. Access to accurate news gives society the chance to make an objective assessment, as well as the power to criticise and change what it criticises.
Safaa Khalaf: The freedom of press is a crucial and fundamental right that must be protected at all costs. It serves as a bedrock to all other freedoms we hold dear as it enables us to access important information and hold those in power accountable for their actions. Without this freedom, we cannot build a fair and just society, as the press plays a crucial role in providing information to the public and shining a light on issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. This freedom is essential for the creation and maintenance of healthy societies that prioritise transparency and openness, as it allows us to stay informed and engaged. Therefore, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure that the press remains free from censorship and retribution, so that it can continue to report on the news without fear or hesitation.
The practice of journalism plays a crucial role in enabling individuals to voice their opinions and protect their rights. However, in today’s world there is a growing trend of supressing the freedom of speech and expression. This has led to an increase in misinformation and a lack of transparency. In such a scenario, how can we ensure that journalism thrives and continues to serve its purpose of informing and enlightening the masses?
On a daily basis, a staggering number of human rights violations take place across the globe, with certain societies being subjected to unjust laws and corrupt governing systems. In light of this, the existence of a free press is crucial in empowering communities to stand up for their rights and demand the freedom they deserve.
The freedom of press is a peaceful and civilised weapon to confront oppression, misinformation, and lack of transparency. It is imperative that individuals have access to a robust and impartial tool that empowers them to make informed decisions and prevents the emergence of oppressive regimes that curtail essential liberties.
The power of the word, the power of information, becomes more solid over time. The yearning for self-expression is a force that no authority body can subdue, and the tools of a free press possess the power to dismantle the machinery of even the most oppressive regimes. This is due to the unwavering trust that people have in a press that is staunchly committed to safeguarding their freedoms.
ICORN: Throughout your journalistic career, what are some of your projects which have helped to advance other human rights?
Wahab Michael Sbhatu: Throughout the 14 years of my journalism career, I worked with the African Monitoring Organisation, a humanitarian NGO based in Uganda, as its correspondent in Sudan for five years. Our objective was to monitor the human rights situation of refugees and asylum seekers in the region, as well as the general human rights conditions in Eritrea, with the ultimate goal of combating human rights violations.
Aslı Ceren Aslan: Having worked as journalist in Turkey, a country which ranks low on the Press Freedom Index, I have experienced that defending press freedom means defending human rights. In 2016, due to the pressure and threats against our colleagues working as journalists in Kurdish neighbourhoods where the state was conducting military operations, it became very difficult for us to get accurate news from the region. Together with many of my colleagues, we organised the ‘News Watch’ campaign both in solidarity with our fellow journalists in the region, and to ensure that the public has access to real news. As 68 journalists who said ‘in pursuit of the truth, we stand by our colleagues’, we went to the conflict zones and symbolically tried to show our colleagues, who are facing the struggle for press freedom and the right to information in the region, that they are not alone.
As a journalist who has worked in Turkey, I have focused on LGBTQI+ people, women, and Kurdish policies in my reporting. The main reason for focusing on these is that all policies of the Turkish state include violations of the rights and freedoms, especially, against these groups. In this context, in July 2020, Yeni Demokrat Kadın Magazine, in which I am on the editorial board, published an article entitled ‘Women are talking about the pandemic, the patriarchy is unmasked: Ask me about the pandemic!’. We have turned the interviews we conducted on the effects of patriarchal policies on the lives of women and LGBTQI+ people during the COVID-19 pandemic into a book, leading this campaign.
Safaa Khalaf: My passion for journalism is rooted in the unwavering belief that every individual has the right to their basic freedoms and fundamental rights, without any restrictions or conditions. It drives to share powerful stories that inspire change and promote awareness.
Between 2003 and 2008, I fought an uphill struggle in Basra with armed and extremist Shiite Islamic groups that sought to impose their backward thinking patterns on society by targeting women and university students.
I turned the press into an effective tool to confront the killing of women by militias by revealing information, names of the killers, and methods of killing women, as well as exposing the decadent religious ways of turning society into a closed region controlled by the fatwas of clerics, through dozens of reports. This example highlights how field journalism can utilise facts to serve society.
Back in 2010, I took the initiative of launching a magazine that revolved around liberal intellectualism and cultural discussions. The magazine was named Nather - Prose and it was exclusively published in Arabic. Its primary objective was to create a safe space for individuals to express their opinions and ideas without any limitations. The three issues that were published in the magazine were a testament to the fact that freedom of expression needs a platform to defend itself.
The magazine fostered a positive competitive environment in Iraq and served as a tool for promoting progressive ideas and opposing regressive religious belief. Despite being banned by the government, people continued to circulate it as a form of resistance against oppression.
In recent years, Iraq has become a hazardous environment for journalists and those who seek to express their opinions freely. The authorities possess formidable means to suppress the press. Consequently, in 2013, I established a platform for independent journalists, the Al-Alem Al-Jadid website. This initiative aimed to provide a means of expression to the public without fear of retribution. The objective was to empower people with the tools necessary to share factual information.
As a journalist, my aim is to create informative and compelling pieces that serve as a conduit for the expression of people’s rights, facilitate their access to information, and safeguard their fundamental freedoms. Each article I construct is a powerful instrument that can help shape public discourse and bring about positive change in society. I am committed to upholding the highest standards of integrity, accuracy, and impartiality in my work, and I strive to make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of journalism and the promotion of democratic values.
It is possible that those who are focused on earning a living may not realise the risks associated with limiting their freedoms. Authorities may persuade people that ‘freedom of expression’ is a luxury for the intellectual elite, but in truth, it is an important aspect that enhances individuals’ living standards and maintains societal diversity.
Through my investigations, I discovered the devastating impact that ISIS had on social diversity in Mosul, northern Iraq. The loss of freedom of expression led to a loss of historical identity and communication among the people. As a result, I was honoured to receive The Naseej Award from the French International Media Support Initiative (CFI).
Currently, we are all confronted with the crisis of climate change. Unfortunately, many governments and companies spread false information to prevent people from becoming fully aware of the crisis. This creates a ‘misleading climate information crisis’. As a result, since 2017 I have been dedicated to producing stories that inform the public in Iraq about the reality of climate change and the future threats it poses to their society. This led to one of my investigations winning the European Union Award for Freedom of the Press in 2022.
Now, I look forward to creating a new platform in Iraq that will promote freedom of expression and help defend all types of freedoms by raising awareness in society. We can work towards obtaining the rights detained to us by the corrupt political system over 20 years.