Let's celebrate 'our' World Press Freedom Day, today

May 3, 2016


By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

"World Press Freedom Day" is today — and let's be blunt: Most of you didn't know, and it's likely a substantial number of you don't care, even now that you do know.

Is it in the name?

"World" may seem too distant. "Press" has become an ugly word and many politicians' punching bag in this presidential campaign year, or a disrespected occupational category. "Freedom" as a word may have some appeal — but most of us in this nation, in survey after survey, appear to take our freedoms for granted. So, even that word is not that big a grabber.

And with all of those lackluster bummer words ahead of "Day," admittedly the entire title lacks the cultural sizzle of New Year's Day or Independence Day, the sentimental tug of soon-to-be observed Mother's Day, or even the kitschy zing of Groundhog Day.

So, how to get people to care?

Perhaps a little campaign to rename it something closer to the truth: "Rapidly disappearing around the globe, endangered even here in the United States, increasingly threatened by demagogues and dictators, digital disruption and disappearing advocates, Press Freedom Day."

A mouthful, to be sure. But an accurate reflection of the just-updated World Press Freedom Map at the Newseum which now shows — based on the new report by the nonpartisan group Freedom House — that six of every seven people live in nations where the press is not free.

Please do notice that it's not called "World Perfect Press Freedom Day." While we have every right to demand and expect a news report marked by accuracy, clarity, diligence in pursuit of the truth, and unbiased and fair reporting, the failure to meet those standards should bring scorn to the specific practitioner — not abandonment of the principle.

Yet, the Newseum Institute's annual State of the First Amendment national survey and many others show a regular decline in the public's view of the press — as a watchdog on government, as a source of news, and even as an essential part of daily life.

Here's another thing about today that you probably didn't know, though I cannot imagine not caring. Khadija Ismayilova, journalist and contributor to the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe, today will receive the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2016. She was sentenced last year to seven-and-a-half years imprisonment for "abuse of power and tax evasion" — charges that are just subterfuge for punishing a journalist with the courage to report honestly about government corruption. In more and more nations, governments are dropping the truncheon and picking up the gavel, using trumped-up criminal charges or specious defamation laws to silence journalists. Less bloody. Perhaps even more effective, unless the world calls out the government bullies publicly on the tactic.

On this World Press Freedom Day, there is some good news. The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian was freed in January after spending 18 months in an Iranian jail after he apparently terrified that nation's leaders simply by reporting on the daily lives of their fellow citizens.

But then there's Austin Tice, a correspondent missing in Syria since 2012. For those who consider journalists as something other than positive role models, consider this: Tice is a National Merit finalist, an Eagle Scout, was enrolled in the University of Houston's Honors College before his 16th birthday, and is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer with multiple combat deployments. On Aug. 13, 2012, he went missing — and his family and our government still are searching for him. When he comes home, let's have "Austin Tice Press Freedom Day."

Then again, if the Digital Age is really all about the consumers of news rather than the providers, why don't we just rename this now-annual event something more universal? Much of the world has the ability to instantly reach all of connected humanity with a computer or mobile device, a few keystrokes and a web connection.

In the larger sense, we're all "press" every time we post, tweet or blog — whether we want that title or not. Media critics and advocates alike are fond of noting "the press" has no more and no less privileges under the First Amendment than any other U.S. citizen.

So let's call it "OUR World Press Freedom Day." Have a great day.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.