World Press Freedom day conference

On World Press Freedom Day, we are celebrating the ways that the University of Sheffield's Journalism department is working to extend press freedom across the world.

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World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day is marking its 30th anniversary in 2023 with a number of events taking place in New York, the home of the UN Headquarters, and around the world. WPFD was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 and the 3rd May also marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek which was established with the aim of promoting independent and pluralistic African press. The purpose of WPFD is to act as a reminder to governments of the importance of press freedom and to bring together a range of stakeholders, including civil society organisations, academia and media professionals, to reflect on issues concerning press freedom and to assess the state of press freedom around the world.

While the UN state that there has been substantial progress towards achieving a free press around the world, there are still issues concerning attacks on media freedom and journalism safety. Indeed, 2022 witnessed a rise in the number of journalists killed worldwide following a decrease over the past three years. 86 journalists lost their lives and the rate of impunity, according to UNESCO, is “shockingly high” at 86 per cent. It is also emphasised that when journalists fear for their safety they engage in self-censorship, meaning that media freedom is impacted. In addition to this, there are issues in countries around the world with regard to media freedom being stifled. In the United States, Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric from his time as president is still having a lasting impact on journalists who face hostility for their work. In India, Prime Minister Modi himself has been critical of the work of journalists and his supporters have been involved in conducting online attacks against them. In the United Kingdom, Index on Censorship noted that a new global free expression index saw the UK slip in its rankings as a consequence of potential government legislation, such as the Online Safety Bill.

The importance of media freedom

Freedom of expression is often considered to be a basic human right that should be protected within legislation. In many countries, there is national legislation that protects freedom of expression. For example, the First Amendment in the United States is perhaps one of the most noted examples. In addition to this, international law also offers protection. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that: Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

Of course, there are limitations to freedom of expression. For example, it can be limited for the respect of the rights and reputations of others (i.e. to protect their privacy) and also for the protection of national security or public health. Freedom of expression, and corollary media freedom, is therefore not an absolute right. Nonetheless, it is an important right that should only be limited when necessary due to its importance.

Media freedom is often considered to be of the utmost importance in a democratic society for a number of reasons. Firstly, for example, it provides us with facts and ideas from a wide-range of sources. By allowing us to receive our news from different outlets and be exposed to numerous opinions, we are better able to challenge particular ideas and to hold others to account. Media freedom and freedom of expression are needed to facilitate participation in a democratic society because it can promote public discussions of public issues and hold those in power to account. Investigative journalism in the United Kingdom led to the exposure of ‘lockdown parties’ and helped to reveal the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. Without media freedom, these issues would never have come to light and leaving us, as an electorate, less well informed about those who have our mandate to govern us.

Of course, that is not to say that media freedom is always perfect. The digital age has elicited the growth of mis and dis-information alongside the spread of fake news. We witnessed this predominantly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and, while Reuters has shown that false news sites are less popular than major established news sites with the public, there are still issues concerning these established news outlets disseminating fake news. For example, Fox News has recently settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit after it claimed that Dominion voting machines helped to rig the 2020 election against Donald Trump and in favour of Joe Biden. Indeed, while freedom of expression is clearly important for a number of reasons, the news media do have a responsibility to report accurately and that is why, in a number of countries, they must abide by codes of conduct.

Centre for Freedom of the Media and Media Freedom

The Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), based in the School of Journalism, Media and Communication, has been involved in a number of projects relating to media freedom and journalism safety. Since 2016, CFOM has been involved in WPFD by launching the academic conference in 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. It was also in 2016 when the Journalism Safety Research Network (JSRN) was launched with the aim to bring together researchers with a common interest surrounding journalism safety and media freedom. Hosted at CFOM, the JSRN now has over 250 members from over 50 countries and hosts a range of events.

CFOM has also led the academic consultation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity on occasion of both its fifth and tenth anniversary. These consultations were a worldwide collaboration among scholars and experts and delivered action-oriented recommendations to UNESCO on how academic could help improve implementation of the Action Plan.

The UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety and the Issue of Impunity, Professor Jackie Harrison, is also based in CFOM. The UNESCO Chair acts a bridge between
academia and policy through research that contributes to developing a free and independent news media worldwide for journalists. The UNESCO Chair achieves this through
research, attendance and co-organisation of the WPFD academic conferences and work with the JSRN. This year CFOM is co-organising the academic conference which is taking place over two days. The first event is an online conference taking place on 27 April and the second is a hybrid event taking place in New York on 1 May. CFOM members Jackie Harrison, Gemma Horton and Stef Pukallus will be travelling to New York for the academic conference and also to attend the UN’s global conference taking place on 2 May. Jackie will be delivering a talk reflecting on the contribution of academia’s research to the global media freedom and journalism safety and stakeholder community. CFOM is also co-organising an event on 2 May at the House of Lords: Towards Press Freedom - New Hope or False Dawn? The event will see prominent speakers present their bold but practical proposals for reclaiming now-censored and toxic areas of the media sphere for unhindered journalism, open public debate and free elections. The event is moderated by CFOM’s International Director, William Horsley.

Moving forward, CFOM is focused on promoting academia’s role in understanding and protecting freedom of expression. It is helping to do this by making research more accessible through its literature database which is a key repository of academic and non- academic literature focused on media freedom and journalism safety issues. It is also hosting a Media Freedom conference in October to discuss proposed legislation in the UK and the impact that this will have on freedom of the press. CFOM also continues to be involved in the School's annual event International Journalism Week, where it annually hosts a panel of speakers focusing on topical issues concerning media freedom.

In addition to this, the JSRN has recently launched its regional working groups aimed at enhancing collaboration between scholars in all regions of the world to tackle journalism safety and media freedom issues. With press freedom under attack in numerous countries and journalists facing safety issues, the role of academia remains imperative in understanding these threats and working together with other stakeholders, such as the UN and civil society organisations, in finding ways to combat them.

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