Press Freedom is for Everyone
Today is Press Freedom Day. We, along with dozens of organizations, take this opportunity to highlight the cases of journalists and bloggers in danger around the world. But World Press Freedom day is more than that. Any journalist, online or off, will tell you that their freedom to report depends not just on their own safety, but on the safety of a network of contributors and supporters. Confidential sources risk their jobs, their own freedom, or even their lives to provide the leads that end up as a story. Editors, publishers, and Internet hosting services in many countries share legal risks with reporters when they are threatened with joint liability. Readers, too, are a target: to play their part in press freedom they must feel safe that they can read controversial material without fearing that their choices of reading matter won't be logged and later used against them.
Journalists these days often work closely with technologists who give them the tools to bypass censorship, protect privacy, or reveal hidden patterns that let them tell stories that authorities would rather keep hidden. Target those technologists, and the power of the modern press diminishes. And journalists co-operate with their fellow reporters: sharing tips or expressing solidarity to defend themselves collectively against threats larger than one reporter can handle.
It is not surprising, then, to see criminals and states attempt these days to stifle free speech by sabotaging the complex communities and infrastructure around journalists, or else work harder to mop up entire groups of reporters in an attempt to stem a rising tide of reportage.
So those who want to silence the press do more now than simply target its most prominent voices. In Iran, we've reported about the arrest of the Narenji bloggers, an entire start-up company rounded up after one was suspected of traveling abroad to learn how to practice his trade safely. In Ethiopia, the authorities have swept up six of the country's key independent bloggers and three other journalists in a single week to shut down dissent online.
In the United States, we've seen the government attempt to defeat the judicial protections around journalists and their sources by targeting the data held by the phone companies they use. In conflict zones, the media support network vital for foreign reporters, including their drivers, translators and fixers, are intimidated before and after they visit the country. In Mexico, drug cartels, who have silenced much of the professional coverage of their crimes, stoop to intimidate the discussion forums where citizens gather to trade practical knowledge on their behavior.
Depressing though it is to see this rise in attempts to stop the modern digital presses, the increase in the suppression of press freedom is undoubtedly because the power of reporting has grown, and thus the energy required to silence an unwanted message has also multiplied. Billions can now read a story from a reporter or source, in their own words, wherever on the planet it was first covered. If one report, or one reporter, is suppressed, others can swiftly rise to take their place. The Streisand Effect isn't just for celebrity revelations: it works in response to censorship of all kinds.
Those who oppose press freedom can no longer depend on making an example of one journalist, or shutting down a newspaper or two. Instead they must work to isolate whole nations of potential storytellers from each other.
Sadly, with enough effort and cunning, there are ways to do just that. The most effective is to divide and conquer. The forces of oppression seek to turn one part of the machinery of free expression against another.
The rhetoric of attacks on the free press always denies that their intention is to stop legitimate reporting. So bloggers are described as "not journalists". Social media journalism isn't real journalism, but merely gossip and a threat to family values. Punitive media registration for websites is simply creating a level playing field with traditional news organizations. Online censorship will be aimed only at disreputable sites, not "legitimate" news and commentary. And so on.
On World Press Freedom day, we remember the hundreds of individuals who have personally faced the brunt of the attacks on the press: intimidated, exiled, imprisoned, beaten, and killed as a result of their work. As we do so, we can't afford to bow to others' definitions of who of those are "real" journalists who should be defended, and who are merely acceptable damage in a battle to create a well-mannered, respectable, and pliant press. To defend the freedom of the press, we need to defend the free speech rights of everyone who contributes to that freedom. And that, if our digital technology lives up to its promise, should be everyone.