FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 as International Day of Freedom of the Press to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect the right to freedom of expression, enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948.

UDHR, ARTICLE 19: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND OF THE MEDIA

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek receive and impart information and ideas though any media and regardless of frontiers.

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence and later the third President of the United States, stated about freedom of the press: 

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
— Thomas Jefferson

A free and pluralistic media guarantees that citizens stay informed and that a forum for debate and open exchange of ideas is created. However, journalism faces several threats in today's societies all over the world, such as surveillance, censorship, increased physical danger for journalists and increased persecution of whistleblowers.

According to a report published by Article 19, a British organization defending freedom of expression and information worldwide, in April 2018, media freedom is at its lowest level since 2006, with a particular increase in the government censorship of those who expose corruption and abuse.

Every year, the non-profit organization Committee to Protect Journalists releases its comprehensive list of journalists killed in relation to their work and an annual census of journalists in jail as of December 1. 2017 was a record year from journalists jailed with 262 journalists behind bars.

Even in countries with long-standing commitments to free speech, the environment for journalists is becoming increasingly hostile. The trend for monopolistic ownership of newspapers is increasing, rising state-sponsored advertising is posing a question of independence of content and the rise of social media platforms and its self-produced “news” are a serious threat to the classical profession of a traditional journalist, producing well-researched and fact-checked work.

This has also an impact on how citizens “consume” media. Polarization in societies is increasing, each side rejecting not only views and opinions of “the other” but also questioning objective facts, if they are presented by media outlets of “the other side”. The perceived erosion of trust in the media impacts the role of the media and journalism as a 4th estate, as it is foreseen by democratic constitutions. In times of social media and digitalization, when it seems that only speed, not depth, counts anymore and the threat of calling everything “fake news” – that is not in line with his/her own opinion – it has to be asked how the media can still fulfill its role as a “watchdog”, in particular, if people less and less believe mainstream media anymore.

Some of these questions were addressed in a Salongespräch/panel discussion, organized by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Press and Information Service of the Austrian Embassy on the occasion of the International Day of Freedom of the Press on May 3, entitled Freedom of the Press: Still the 4th Estate?”
More information about this past event here.