Journalist Lyra McKee was two-years-old when the United Nations established World Press Freedom Day in 1993. Since then, a generation has passed in which journalists and their supporters have recognised the day, calling for practical support to those who face threats, paying tribute to those killed doing their work, and calling for an end to the impunity that surrounds so many of their deaths.
And yet every year dozens and dozens of journalists are killed – many with total impunity. This year, World Press Freedom Day comes less than a month after the murder of 29-year-old McKee in Northern Ireland, the first journalist to be killed on UK soil in 18 years.
In life, she sought to do what many others shy away from. She grew up as a gay woman in Belfast, a place split by conflict and stifled by conservative attitudes. Her own experiences of marginalisation were reflected in the issues and individuals she wrote about and the work she championed of others. Her death sends a message that should not be ignored by anyone who cares about democracy.
It comes as the British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has launched a government press freedom campaign, to which he has enlisted the star power of the international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. He has promised practical action and concrete steps.
While it’s encouraging to see this issue belatedly prioritised in London, it would be naïve to assume press freedom can be secured by one government, and particularly one with other political priorities and problems.
In the United States, the picture is even more concerning, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker, a collaboration between more than two dozen press freedom groups to track press freedom violations.
President Donald Trump has labelled journalists ‘the enemy of the people’, words widely regarded as linked to attacks on journalists in the United States both online and offline. In the worst of these incidents in June 2018, a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, in the biggest mass shooting of media personnel in the country’s history. The US is now ranked in 48th position on this year’s Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, with RSF classifying it as ‘problematic’.
Meanwhile, the Index puts the United Kingdom at 33rd place. Though it is up seven places from last year, the UK is still one of the worst-ranked countries in Western Europe: “largely due to a heavy-handed approach towards the press, often in the name of national security,” in the words of Reporters Without Borders.
Even before the killing of Lyra McKee, the past two years had marked a sea change in violence against journalists in Europe. In 2018, the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was murdered. So too was the Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova. In October, the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, prompting global outcry.
The killings of or attacks on journalists and media workers may be rising in Europe and the United States but they are still rare, which is one of the reasons why they garner more attention than the killings of our colleagues elsewhere. Still, across the world in countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan, Brazil and Syria, journalists have been dying at an alarming rate.
As of 29 April, the International News Safety Institute reports that so far in 2019, 11 journalists and media support staff have been killed and one citizen journalist. At the same time, Reporters Without Borders counts 175 journalists, 150 citizen journalists and 17 media assistants as being imprisoned.
There was a time when journalism was regarded as a noble profession, one which gave privileged access to people and information. Journalists had the power to expose wrongdoing and to help spread the word to the masses about the powerful, holding them to account. They were regarded as having the power to initiate profound change in society.
Of course, they still do. But fewer and fewer people outside of the media industry believe that. But how do we begin to change that?
We must walk the walk not just talk the talk. We need to hold ourselves accountable as well as those we report on. We have a responsibility to the audiences we serve and to the wider public to be truthful and accountable, transparent and independent, to root our work in humanity and the basic principles of ethical journalism as we educate ourselves and others about the role of journalists and what is at stake when press freedom suffers.
There has been some movement. After Jamal Khashoggi was killed he was named one of Time magazine’s persons of the year, along with those killed at the Capital Gazette, and several other brave journalists fighting against despotic attacks to press freedom such as Maria Ressa in the Philippines and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar on charges linked to their reports on the Rohingya.
This World Press Freedom Day, journalists and their supporters will be gathering in Ethiopia for the official Unesco event where the theme for this year is ‘Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation’. There, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be honoured with the Guillermo Cano award for their ‘outstanding contribution to press freedom’. But it’s unlikely to result in them being released from their Myanmar jail. Likewise, nothing we say or do will bring back Lyra or Jamal or any of the dozens of other journalists killed this year for their work.
We need to make sure the world hears us when we say enough is enough. The danger is we end up speaking to ourselves, shouting into an echo chamber, words and phrases that only we can hear. If we keep on shouting into the dark, it’s as good as not shouting at all and to borrow a phrase from The Washington Post, ‘democracy dies in darkness’.
Hannah Storm is CEO and director of the Ethical Journalism Network