The White House Correspondents Association annual dinner is a chance for the President or Vice President and their administration to schmooze the press corps, during an evening of ironic and sometimes sardonic comedy which sets aside the usually serious timbre of politics in place of a more jovial and fun-filled resonance.  However, at the finale of this year’s speech, just as the uproarious subsided, US President Barack Obama ended on a slightly more serious note.  “You know, in the last months, we’ve seen journalists threatened, arrested, beaten, attacked, and in some cases even killed simply for doing their best to bring us the story, to give people a voice, and to hold leaders accountable.  And through it all, we’ve seen daring men and women risk their lives for the simple idea that no one should be silenced, and everyone deserves to know the truth.”

Today’s World Press Freedom day also coincides with the 20th Anniversary of the endorsement of the ‘Declaration of Windhoek’.  This document recognises at an African level, the importance of a free and pluralistic media.  By implication it also stands as a treatise and exposition to the need for the international community to work harder to promote a more pluralistic and independent Media.  Chillingly, in operative clause 7 of the text it states that at time of writing at least “17 journalists, editors or publishers are in African prisons, and 48 African journalists were killed in the exercise of their profession between 1969 and 1990.”  Unfortunately, the violence and restriction to free media practice is as prevalent today as it was 20 years ago and there can be no greater example of this than statistics that routinely come from many parts of the world on the restrictions, which are invariably aggressively forced upon journalists.       

As we mark the World Press Freedom day we are given the opportunity to celebrate the freedom of the press, to ponder the responsibility that comes with reporting the story and to commit to ensuring that throughout the world, especially in those places where freedom of expression is restricted, the press is granted the freedom to operate, to give that voice, to hold accountable and to quest for and report the truth.  It is also a time to remember the vast numbers of journalists who are gagged, restricted, who fester and languish in prisons or, like British photojournalist Tim Heartherington, have been slain in their ambition to bring the most important stories into our living rooms and into our lives.  A press ensures that we are updated; a free press ensures that from times of recession to revolution we are informed of all sides of the story.  Their words have exposed corruption in government and big business and their images have stirred people to action against war, famine and disease.  There is no greater outlet for advocacy and we must always be aware of the need to respect these men and women who give a voice to the voiceless by ensuring the simple ideas of accountability and truth.

As Barack Obama ended his speech he poised to remember those who have been killed as active journalists saying that they also help to defend freedom and allow democracy to flourish.   World Press Freedom day is exactly the opportune moment to reflect on that defence of freedom and flourish of democracy that is at the very working heart of a free press.

By Micheál Murphy.



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