May 3rd is marked as the annual World Press Freedom Day with the theme ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.’ In a technologically aided time as now, we are left to believe that freedom of expression will easily be achieved compared to past times. But is that really the case with today’s media landscape?
UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day 2017
The World Press Freedom day celebrates and promotes press freedom by reminding the citizens of the world about freedom of expression. Governments are expected to reach out and defend journalists who have gone through the extreme in delivering us stories. As for media professionals themselves, it is a day to reflect upon their power to inform and deliver fact-based quality information. Three themes were explored. All focused on press freedom in paving the roads for societal peace and justice with the following statements: justice for all as a prerequisite for freedom of expression and sustainable development; promoting the media’s potential as a catalyzer of peace and mutual understand; and freedom of expression and freedom of information foster more inclusive societies. What do peace, justice and freedom of expression have in common, you ask? This year’s Press Freedom Day accentuated the public’s – including authorities’ – attitude towards media coverage in generating societal developments. An interview with Mr. Jose Ramos Horta, the former President of East Timor, discussed the importance of eliciting empathy in the public through the media. By evoking a human face to a story the media can bring about peaceful, just and inclusive society.
“[…] with the advent of fake news comes the value and appreciation for real news…”
The media landscape today
UNESCO’s concept note reflected upon the proliferation of fake news in 2016. It mentioned The New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg had concluded that with the advent of fake news comes the value and appreciation for real news. He stated, “Original, critical, and well-researched journalism is perhaps needed more today than ever before.” And it’s hard to disagree, especially with media convergence typically social and technological convergence. Think of it as the existence of smartphones – its trend causes everyone to have it and with it they can individually upload, update, share and comment content that may or may not have to do with sensational and/or newsworthy events. In the words of Neil MacDonald, “Credentialed, properly researched journalism is being displaced by free internet noise, littered with falsehoods and tailored to satisfyingly reinforce the reader’s assumptions.” If freedom of expression is sustained at the expense of falling back to the echo chamber effect, how would this really benefit the society?
The 2017 World Press Freedom Index established by Reporters Without Borders, the monitors of press freedom worldwide, ranks the Netherlands fifth out of 180 countries. Needless to say that this is a consoling fact, especially for a foreign writer as me to ramble on about anything without having to worry about societal backlash all too much. But then I start to wonder about my country of origin, Indonesia. Indonesia is ranked 124th on the index – a step up of 6 points from the previous year. It’s position is probably one of the main reasons why this year’s main event and prize ceremony is held in Jakarta, Indonesia – the local government’s attempt to acknowledge and partake in press freedom would hopefully rub off on local media professionals. And to be frank, with the post-governor election situation in Jakarta (and the more recent Ahok blasphemy case), we need all the transparency and quality information we can get to improve both its political and societal conditions.
With the advent of user-generated content, citizen journalists have the resources required to express their thoughts and perspectives on any newsworthy events. As a consequence they possess the individual power of the press themselves. This touches on the very idea of freedom of expression, yet credibility can be overlooked. A take home message that we should treasure from this year’s World Press Freedom Day considers our role as a generation of digital media users in contributing fact-based quality information – how can we creatively deliver quality information using the abundance of media technology we have at our disposal?