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No let up on attacks on the press as far-right surges across Europe

By Linus Atarah

As the world celebrates the 26th World Press Freedom today, it is doubtful whether there is much to celebrate about press freedom around the world, after all. The surge of far-right governments in combination with authoritarian regimes around the world has cast a gloomy shadow over press freedom.

In a chilling assessment provided by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accompanying its newly compiled this year’s world press freedom index report – an annual survey of the situation of press freedom around the world, says: “The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media”, says RSF.

Why? The primary reason, according to the Paris-based organization, is because “hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fueled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists”. Such a situation, RSF, says, sows a climate of fear that is inimical to safe reporting.

“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger, warns General Secretary of RSF, Christophe Deloire. 

 Civicus, a South Africa-based organization that monitors the state of civil society around the world, makes a similar observation in its annual report this year. Attacks on journalists, censorship and suppression of press freedom, says Civicus, have restricted the space for civic activism in all continents across the globe.

It is worth mentioning a few instances that can be spotted around the world. In Hungary, the nationalist right-wing government of Victor Orban has converted most of the country’s media into piping out only acceptable to the government and does not countenance any criticism. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, has vowed, foaming in the mouth, that journalists would not be protected in his murderous war on drugs that has killed several thousand since he assumed power in 2016. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has sent hundreds of journalists to jail on false charges of terrorism. And the United States, which used to pride itself as the cornerstone of press freedom, President Donald Trump has kicked that illusion into pieces since he came into power, declaring the media as “enemies of the people”.

It is with this backdrop that the 26th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day will be celebrated May 3 this year. To commemorate the event, the UN cultural organization, Unesco is jointly organizing a conference with the government of Ethiopia on May 2-3 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with over 100 complementary national events around the world.

The United Nations General Assembly in 1993, proclaimed May 3 as the World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold that right as a cornerstone for democracy.

Under the theme, Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation, this year’s conference provides a platform to address some of the worrying concerns about the deteriorating situation of media freedom and civic rights around world.

Under the overarching theme the conference has undertaken to address many issues, including how to handle media censorship, for instance, deliberate Internet disruptions during elections, how to institutionalize the monitoring of threats and attacks on journalists during elections and what to do in order to counter rhetorical attacks on journalism. Also to be tackled is how to apply press freedom regulation relevant to elections, to include media institutions, internet companies and governance of the Internet more broadly, during the era of digital communication.

In the opening statement of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declared: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre”.

Indeed, the perception of a Communist threat continued to hang over the world well into the late 20th century. It may have receded now, but it has been replaced by another spectre – the spectre of far-right populism.

Far-right wing populism is an equally potent force against democracy as communism was in its day.

And until the genie of far-right populism that is now coursing through large swathe of Europe has been placed back in the bottle, or wherever it came from, the central tenets of liberal democracy – press freedom – would continue to beat a retreat.