As I write this it’s May 3, World Press Freedom Day. During a year when the world has been hit by a pandemic, freedom of press has been restricted in many countries. When the public has been in great need of objective and credible news reporting and information, many governments around the world have taken the pandemic as an excuse to restrict media’s working conditions.
Even in countries with a long tradition of free press and democracy the situation has changed for the worse during the last year. It’s alleged that these will be temporary changes, but we will all have to be vigilant that they don’t become permanent after COVID-19.
Agricultural journalists may not be in the frontline when governments decide to restrict the working conditions for the press, but even in IFAJ we have colleagues who have been imprisoned for their work. When regimes want to silence the opposition, they start with those who can reach and influence the public opinion, such as journalists. It might not happen overnight, but step by step, so it might not be obvious until the freedom is gone.
I am lucky to live and work in Sweden, a country which has enjoyed freedom of the press and democracy for hundreds of years. But even in countries like this we experience threats both from both the outside world and from internal trials. The strained economy and reduced staffing in media today are threatening quality journalism. And as a result of this, the public’s trust of media might be weakened.
In a new media landscape, with new actors who haven’t got the same ethics and mission as old media, there will be new challenges. Many applauded when ex-president Donald Trump was blocked from Twitter, but should a private company have the right to restrict freedom of speech? And a similar problem was aroused when Facebook decided to exclude news stories in Australia. In other countries, journalists are frightened into silence by threats through social media.
Democracy is fragile, and freedom of press and speech have to be protected and defended constantly. All of us have the responsibility to stand up for a free and independent journalism. It is one of the pillars of democracy. If it feels hard or even hopeless, we can seek support and strength among our colleagues in IFAJ. We are many in a similar situation, so together we are stronger.