This past Sunday, the statement below was read at the Fahmy Foundation’s Free Press Solidarity Rally, on behalf of CJFE. As we reflect on our rights and freedoms here at home, we cannot afford to forget those abroad whose stories we do not always hear and whose work is crucial to keeping us informed about current events and crises around the world.
UNESCO’s theme for World Press Freedom Day this year is “Let journalism thrive.” The very fact that this powerful underlying principle of a free press even needs to be said is perhaps an indication of the extent to which press freedom around the world is under threat today. At CJFE, the number of applicants to our Journalists in Distress Fund, which provides humanitarian assistance grants to journalists in peril, has doubled as compared to this time last year. Meanwhile, Freedom House reports that conditions for the media have reached their lowest point in more than a decade.
“Letting journalism thrive,” is also what has underpinned the incredible support for the plight of Mohamed Fahmy and his colleagues as the campaign for their release has spanned the globe and attracted champions from all walks of life. At CJFE, we are incredibly proud and humbled to have been part of the #FreeAJStaff campaign since that fateful day in December 2013 when Egyptian security services stormed into their suite at the Marriott Hotel.
The idea that three journalists, guilty of nothing more than reporting on Egypt’s reality at a turbulent time, could be thrown in prison and convicted of terrorism charges is a disturbing one. And yet, what is perhaps even more distressing is that this is a reality for many more local journalists around the world.
In Ethiopia, nine journalists and bloggers have been jailed for over a year without seeing the inside of a courtroom, charged with planning to carry out terrorism. Their crime? Commenting on current events in their country and using digital encryption to communicate.
Zunar, a political cartoonist in Malaysia who drew cartoons criticizing the country’s judiciary, is facing nine counts of sedition and a potential 45 years in prison if convicted.
Mazen Darwish, Syrian journalist and press freedom advocate, has been in prison since February 2012 where he stands charged with “promoting terrorist activities” for reporting on the dismal human rights situation in Syria.
These stories, while shocking, are just a small sampling of the journalists being persecuted under “anti-state” charges for exercising their fundamental right to free expression.
For too long we have taken our freedom of expression for granted in Canada. Our rights are currently being threatened by repressive legislation, an ailing access to information system, and a digital surveillance regime that is expanding out of control.
We have also faced impunity in this country. Tara Singh Hayer was murdered in this very province in 1998 for his work reporting on the Air India bombing. The men who killed him have yet to be charged. That said, you would be relatively hard pressed to find a Canadian journalist who fears putting their family at risk by returning home from work. Harder pressed still to point out a Canadian journalist forced to flee because militant groups have put a target on their back and government support is non-existent.
Local journalists around the world are undeniably the most at risk of threats, attacks, murder and impunity in such killings. They risk everything to bring us the news on the ground and yet, we so rarely hear their stories.
Thus, perhaps the best response to the call of “let journalism thrive” this World Press Freedom Day is to ask you all to help journalism thrive. Lend your voices to the call for better protections for local reporters, freelancers, stringers, and fixers, from governments and from the media organizations who purchase their work. Publicize the stories of journalists in peril around the world who may not have a Western government capable or willing to advocate for them. Visibility goes a long way in offering protection. And finally, educate yourselves on the threats facing journalists abroad and at home, here in Canada, because knowledge is our best defence against attempts to curb our rights.