[OPINION] Why we need to support free media in era of fake news

Daniel Pruce
As Winston Churchill said, 'A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny'

I have enormous respect for the work you do as journalists: your ability to produce coherent reports and analysis under extreme time pressure often in uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous, circumstances always impressed me. I consider it a privilege to have got to know your profession well.

I also attach great importance to the role you play in free, democratic societies. I am proud of the United Kingdom’s long history of standing up for media freedom around the world. Holding the powerful to account, speaking up for those who have no voice, ensuring the proper application of the fundamental principles common to any free society – including the rule of law, protection of human rights and freedom of speech. 

These are all responsibilities that you bear. As the great British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill said, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.” 

So I am delighted that the British Government will this year be leading a global campaign in support of media freedom. In the coming months you will see us in the embassy very active on this issue. We will be working with the government, business and civil society. I hope we can also work in partnership with you.

You will see us standing up for media freedom where we see it under threat. You will see us sharing our experience of how a free media is an essential element of any genuine democracy. You will see us launching activities to foster improved media literacy, support professional journalism and to encourage the exchange of views on media regulation. 

Serious threat

Why now? 

Because the freedom of the media is under serious threat. 

2018 was one of the deadliest years ever for journalists. At least 80 were killed (including 6 from the Philippines). A further 348 were detained. Around the world, we see journalists and media organizations targeted and harassed, often under the thin veneer of due process. They are prevented from going about their legitimate work. Legislative and practical barriers have increased. 

The collapse of traditional business models is being aggravated by the undue influence of wealthy political actors. Media institutions are increasingly vulnerable to political and economic influences that limit their capacity to work independently and in the public interest. 

A free media is an essential ingredient to a well-functioning democracy and the rules-based international system. Without it there is no accountability. A free press is bound up with good governance, democracy, equality and poverty reduction. 

Just by way of example: the evidence shows a clear overlap between the countries with the least corruption and the countries with the freest media. Those countries near the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index also appear near the top of the Press Freedom Index. And the correlation holds at the other end of the scale. Of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, 4 are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to press freedom.

In the era of fake news and propaganda, supporting a free media also means countering the incoming tides of disinformation. While it has never been easier to publish and receive information, it has also never been easier to spread lies and conspiracy theories.

So the professional standards of courageous, objective, fact-based journalism have never been more important. The UK is committed to media freedom and the protection of journalists across the world. 

Throughout the year the UK government will shine a spotlight on media freedom issues and increase the costs to governments that impinge on those freedoms. In the longer term, we want to see a reduction in state barriers to a free media, countries living up to their international commitments and the taboo on attacks against journalists re-gaining widespread acceptance. 

There is important work for us all in the months ahead. I do hope you will be able to join us as we take it forward. – Rappler.com

 

The author is ambassador of the United Kingdom to the Philippines. These are excerpts from the speech that Ambassador Pruce made on February 7 at the Philippine launch of the UK’s global campaign on media freedom in Makati