New York, May 1, 2023–Evan Gershkovich and Jimmy Lai are about to spend World Press Freedom Day behind bars.
Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal Moscow correspondent, and Lai, a pro-democracy Hong Kong media magnate, are among record numbers of journalists in prison as the United Nations marks the 30th anniversary of its special day for media freedom on Wednesday, May 3, in New York.
Their imprisonment, by countries that make up two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, highlights the shrinking of media freedom globally and the need for the U.N. to do more to address it.
Gershkovich was one of the few foreign correspondents left in Russia since Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine last year and clamped down on all independent reporting. Lai had tried to keep alive the promise of a free press in Hong Kong but in 2020 was silenced by Beijing’s security state.
When World Press Freedom Day was inaugurated in 1993, independent news outlets were springing up in Russia and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual prison census did not find any journalists jailed in the country for their work. CPJ’s most recent census, by contrast, recorded 19 in prison on December 1, 2022. Independent news media are now either shuttered or forced abroad.
In 1993, Hong Kong was four years away from being handed back to China by Britain and enjoying a robust media landscape. The mainland was still a minefield for independent Chinese reporters, but many learned to pick a path through Communist Party censorship. Chinese jails housed 29 journalists that year, compared with 43 last December.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West believed it had won the Cold War and would usher in a new democratic world order. Many Eastern European nations embraced new freedoms and independent journalism emerged from the dissident underground into the daylight.
The impetus to establish a day to honor press freedom, however, came out of Africa with the Windhoek Declaration of 1991. Then, a sense of political optimism gripped much of the continent as apartheid unraveled in South Africa, Namibia shook off colonial rule and Ethiopia toppled a murderous dictator.
In the decade that followed, independent journalism blossomed globally. The arrival of the internet and the publishing freedoms it brought briefly tipped the balance of power between state control of information and the press in favor of free expression.
But that began to shift back in the 2000s, coinciding with the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the ability of governments to turn the new liberating technologies into tools of censorship and surveillance.
Journalism needs democracy and rule of law to thrive. It is now losing both.
The Swedish-based V-Dem Institute, which monitors political freedoms globally, says the gains of the past 35 years have been wiped out. It estimates that 72% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – now live in autocracies. “The decline is most dramatic in the Asia-Pacific region, which is back to levels last recorded in 1978,” it says in its 2023 Democracy Report. The U.S. watchdog Freedom House agrees. Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year, it notes in its 2023 report.
So, has the U.N. made any progress all these years?
At the constant prodding of civil society organizations and free-press-friendly member states, UNESCO – the Paris-based U.N. agency responsible for free expression – has helped promote journalist safety and an end to impunity in the killing of journalists. In 2012, it launched a Plan of Action to defend free media. It has also designated November 2 as International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
But UNESCO is a relatively small unit with the U.N. structure. It is constrained by U.N. member states’ power politics, which prevent it from calling out individual countries for repressing the media, and it lacks the global footprint and resources to intervene quickly where journalists are detained, attacked or murdered.
The limits of the U.N. mechanisms to keep journalists safe were clearly on display after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It was down to the individual initiative of Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard to assemble a team and go to Turkey to investigate the killing and draft a report for the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Special rapporteurs are independent human rights experts appointed, but not paid, by the U.N. to investigate violations. They can only visit countries to probe abuses if the country under scrutiny agrees.
However, there is still a lot the U.N. can do with its existing authority and structure to address press freedom. First, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and supportive member states need to invest the resources needed to strengthen UNESCO’S plan on journalist safety. Then they need to say and do more against states that flagrantly ignore or violate human rights, as they did by voting to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council last year.
David Kaye, a former special rapporteur for freedom of expression, suggests creating a task force of investigators under the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council to probe attacks on the media. He also sees a bigger role for the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its new head, Volker Türk, in defending the press. “I think that the ability to get human rights researchers or investigators on the ground in the immediate aftermath of an attack or a series of attacks on journalists, can be really meaningful,” Kaye told me.
Türk’s office is already working with press freedom groups to draw up its own list of imprisoned journalists and called for the release of those who have been arbitrarily detained for “doing their essential work”– encouraging signs that can reinforce swift action by existing U.N. institutions when journalists are killed or detained.
“The key is that you want press freedom to be a part of the fabric of the UN process rather than a one-off,” Kaye added. “It’s great to have a day, but you need to have it day after day, you have to have the institutional ability to actually address impunity.”
Evan Gershkovich, Jimmy Lai, and some 363 other jailed journalists are counting on just that.