Now more than ever, we need to protect media freedoms worldwide

A free and independent media plays an invaluable role underpinning prosperity in each and every nation around the world. Yet, across the world the physical repression of journalists, freedom from government censorship of the press and media, and freedom of opinion and expression, are all at lower levels in 2021 than they were in 2007.

A commentary for the Courage in Journalism programme by David Wesson

Published 24 Mar 2021

Across the world today, media freedoms are increasingly under threat.

Reporters Without Borders has recorded the deaths of over 900 journalists in the past decade.  Most alarmingly, two thirds of these deaths took place in countries not at war but at peace, with journalists themselves increasingly being deliberately targeted as they pursue truth and justice.

The Legatum Institute’s work shows that personal freedoms and governance have been declining worldwide over the past decade. Over half of the 167 countries included in the Legatum Prosperity Index have seen a weakening in their governance in the last 10 years, and just under half have experienced weakening personal freedoms – including freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of speech and access to information.

Our work highlights that, across the world, physical repression of journalists, freedom from government censorship of the press and media, political diversity of media perspectives, and freedom of opinion and expression, are all at lower levels in 2021 than they were in 2007.

This is of grave concern.

A free and independent media plays an invaluable role underpinning prosperity in each and every nation around the world. A free press helps empower people by ensuring they are informed, encouraging public debate on critical issues, holding leaders to account and providing essential scrutiny of decision-making at all levels and in all sectors.  A free press is integral to maintaining a healthy social contract between the government and the people, acting as the forum through which dialogue can be exchanged and trust can be built.

As the work of Reporters Without Borders has shown, in recent years, we have seen the undermining of media freedoms take a more menacing form – with journalists being personally targeted as a result of their investigative work. This is reflected in the murder of several high-profile reporters over the last few years, including Jamal Khashoggi, Marie Colvin, and Daphne Caruana Galizia.  As we read the list of Nominees for the 2021 Courage in Journalism Award it is clear that this trend continues today.  The vast majority of journalists killed in the last year were purposefully targeted to silence investigations into alleged injustice and corruption. It is of particular concern that for most journalists listed, justice has yet to be served.

Nowhere in the world is the personal threat to journalists felt more strongly than in Mexico. The country has long been the most dangerous place for journalists outside an official war zone, with those investigating the nexus between organised crime and corrupt officials most frequently targeted. Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexican representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, states that the crisis principally stems from impunity, with over 90% of journalist killings remaining without justice.

In Mexico the issue is multi-faceted: a combination of weak safety and security and poor respect for the rule of law, with the country ranking 159th in the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index for the latter.

This situation contrasts with countries such as North Korea, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, and Djibouti, where restrictions on freedom of speech and access to information are government-led. In China alone, over 100 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, according to Reporters Without Borders.

It is clear from this stark reality that there is a need for renewed international focus on improving media freedoms worldwide.

Since 2017, the Legatum Institute has honored journalists who have lost their lives in the course of their work through the annual Courage in Journalism Award.

The Award was founded following the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the respected Maltese journalist who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. During her life, Daphne worked tirelessly to expose corruption and wrongdoing in her country.  Fully aware of the dangers this work presented, she persevered, believing that the Maltese people have a right to fair, accurate reporting and to the truth.

Following Daphne’s death, and in discussion with her family, the Institute established the Award to remember her work and to shine a light on the very real dangers facing journalists in many countries around the world. The Award is given posthumously, recognising a journalist whose life has made a significant impact – and whose death provides the opportunity both to honor their legacy but also to ignite a coalition dedicated to improving future press freedoms globally.

We owe the men and women who risk and have given their lives in pursuit of truth, a great debt. Just as each and every one of the journalists nominated for the 2021 Courage in Journalism Award provides a beacon of hope in their commitment to truth and justice, so too must we honour their lives and their legacy by condemning these restrictions on press freedoms and impunity from the rule of law.  We stand in solidarity with all journalists in the pursuit of truth and justice, to be able to carry on their work freely and safely, throughout the world.