Global press freedom under attack

Journalists are being threatened, persecuted, arrested and killed around the world. A recent incident in Austria shows that even reporters in established democracies are subject to attacks.

Last Friday marked the annual global press freedom day, but there was no reason for celebration. Since the start of 2019 ten journalists have been killed and more than 170 imprisoned. The NGO Reporters Without Borders has stated that only 9% of the world’s population live in countries where the press is relatively free and hence titled its latest ranking “A Cycle of Fear”. In that regard, it should make us think that politicians often don’t support the cause of journalists but attack it.

Over the past years, reporters have been drawn into a fight they would rather avoid. Some of them have been branded “enemies of the people” by a certain US President while at the same time political parties offer their own interpretations of reality and spread them online. Newspapers and TV stations – particularly those which have been “too critical” – are called biased or left-wing.

Many politicians want reporters to lose their image of neutral observers at all cost. Social media helps them to fundamentally challenge traditional journalism: anyone with internet access can become a source, report, comment and interpret. What some hail as decentralization or even democratization of reporting has made the wealth of information ever more complex and increasingly prone to misinterpretation.

The discrediting of journalists is hardly an overseas phenomenon however.

European threats and challenges

Recent examples demonstrate the extent to which European reporters face restrictions and persecution. Turkey granted work permits to foreign correspondents only after international protest. Hungarian news outlets are said to be almost entirely controlled by a small group of people close to the government. The murder of journalists in Malta and Slovakia show how dangerous the profession can be even in the EU which prides itself with values of democracy and tolerance.

Austria is the latest European case of press freedom being in peril. The threat of a high-ranked member of the Austrian government party FPÖ against the TV reporter Armin Wolf that his interview style cannot go on “without consequences” caused outrage at home and abroad, but the party seems to have sparked this provocation deliberately.

Criticizing the national TV station ORF has become fashionable among the party’s supporters and stirring that sentiment in the run-up to the EU elections in three weeks’ time might mobilize disenchanted voters. Doing and undoing journalism more than ever represents a powerful political weapon, both in Europe and elsewhere.

The nexus between media, politics and society will continue to undergo changes and challenges, the dangers to press freedom will remain present. Civic engagement and the duty not to tolerate attacks against reporters are values that our societies and political classes should promote.

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