Speaking Truth to Power on World Press Freedom Day

WE Communications Blog: CEO blog: Melissa Waggener Zorkin

5/3/2019
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO 

Did you know today is World Press Freedom Day? Maybe you do — after all, we’ve been celebrating it (and yes, “celebrating” is exactly the right word) since 1994. But if you don’t, here’s the backstory. May 3 is the anniversary of UNESCO’s “Declaration of Windhoek on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press”: an extraordinary document written by African journalists that affirmed the international community’s commitment to a free, fair, diverse press. “Freedom of information and expression is a fundamental contribution to the fulfilment of human aspirations,” the Windhoek journalists wrote. “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right.”

All these years later, World Press Freedom Day reminds us all to, as the UN puts it:

  • celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Today, more than ever, we need to lift up those four principles. In a statement last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres explained why. “No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information,” he said. “It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

Accordingly, this year’s theme is “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.” And, for me anyway, that hits pretty close to home.

It’s easy, I think, to get blasé about how dangerous the rhetoric of “fake news” — by which we now seem to mean any information we find unflattering, or that doesn’t reinforce what we already think we know — really is.

For the media, fake news is very, very real. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, globally, 28 journalists were arrested on charges of fake news in 2018 — that’s triple from just three years ago. More journalists are in prison now than at any time since the Committee began keeping records, too.

In 1992, the year after the Windhoek Declaration was published, the extraordinary Committee to Protect Journalists reports 44 journalists around the world were murdered because of the work they did; in 2018, 54 journalists died for the same reason. In all, between 1992 and today, nearly 2,000 journalists and media workers have been killed for reporting the news — for holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power. 

And these tragedies don’t just happen to other people in other places. This year, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the United States joined the list of the top-five deadliest countries (behind Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, and Yemen, and tied with India) for journalists for the first time. Six journalists, including four at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, were killed here in 2018.

Thanks to what RSF calls “the violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government,” the organization ranks the United States 48th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index (which it calls, tellingly, “A Cycle of Fear”). In this country, in 2019, journalists risk arrest — or much worse — simply for doing their jobs.

That’s why journalists are among the bravest people I know. They place themselves in danger every day, just so they can tell us the truth.

 

Accountability Matters

Even as our public officials disguise lies with neologisms like “alternative facts” (and old classics like “a slip of the tongue”), even as it feels like we’re being dragged out to sea on an exhausting rip current of spin, we must keep on defending the truth and the people who tell it. Now more than ever, nothing could be more important.

We don’t have to just sit on the sidelines or behind our computer screens and hope for the best; as communicators, we have a critically important role to play. We might not be able to stop every dictator from rising, for instance, but we can remind them that the world is watching — and make sure that it is.

In March of this year, leading news organizations around the world announced the formation of the One Free Press Coalition to respond to attacks on the free press with a united front. Members of the coalition include some of the most important voices of our times, including Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, and other global partners like the International Women’s Media Foundation.

On the first of each month, the coalition publishes a roundup of the ten “most pressing cases of journalists under attack for pursuing the truth” to an audience of more than 1 billion people. By broadcasting their stories, the group hopes to use public pressure to block those who would threaten the safety of people who tell the stories the rest of us desperately need to hear.  

 

Stand for Truth — Even When It’s Hard

Undoubtedly, there is a business case for protecting a free, fair press. We know, for instance, that positive earned media has always been the ultimate prize to deliver for clients — and when the media’s credibility is diminished, so is the impact of the stories we tell.

But the moral case is even more important — and as professional communicators, we can lead by example. We have to stand for the truth in all our interactions. It might require tact, even bravery. Whether we’re at the dinner table with friends or collaborating on projects with teammates (and clients, too), we need to correct falsehoods wherever we find them. With light and air, the truth can flourish — and so can we.

And so, today and every day, I try to think about all those journalists who have sacrificed their comfort, their safety, and sometimes even their lives to tell the stories that matter most. Still, I know I can do more to honor and share those four pillars of press freedom. I hope you will, too.

 

Read more posts from WE Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin here.