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What freedom?

The world celebrates press freedom day every year on May 3. Reports by different international organisations, like Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, have been pointing out in recent years that press freedom is under attack in many countries. In different countries news channels, newspapers and websites have been closed down or are facing threat of closure. Authoritarian tendencies are on the rise internationally, and the media has become a victim of this tendency.

In many countries independent and opposition-linked newspapers and news channels have been forced to be sold off to pro-government news outlets. Such governments see independent journalism as a threat and using every means possible to crush it. President Trump is leading the campaign against the mainstream media in the US. It is a conscious effort on the part of the American president to discredit the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and other prominent liberal newspapers and news channels in the US.

Civil liberty and media freedom campaigners are worried that the possible extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his prosecution for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations. Assange’s arrest is the beginning of a long campaign to further curtail the freedom of the press.

Other countries could use this American precedent to further restrict the freedom of expression. The Julian Assange case could establish a dangerous precedent.

There are three main threats to the freedom of the press. First, authoritarian and repressive states and regimes in different countries pose direct threats to media freedom. They ruthlessly suppress dissent and independent media. In many countries, the state puts pressure on the media.

Second, non-state actors including armed militant groups, criminal mafia gangs, political parties, religious violent groups use kidnappings, killings and attacks on journalists and media houses to silence them. Social media too is used for spreading hatred and inciting violence against independent media and journalists. In countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, Syria, Mexico and others, these non-state actors pose serious threats to media freedom. Sometimes journalists become victims of both state and non-state actors.

Third, the increased commercial interests and competition between media outlets also pose a serious threat to media freedom. These commercial interests also at times drive editorial policy. Big Business and capitalists have invested heavily in the media in the last few decades. The corporate media is driven by profits like any other capitalist entity and mainstream media is either controlled by state and government or by Big Business and multinational corporations. The profit-driven corporate media has made journalists much more financially vulnerable. Both governments and private big business use the advertisement as a tool and weapon to dictate and control the media.

According to an International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report, 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents in 2018. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder caught the attention of the world. In 2017, 82 journalists, cameramen and other supporting staff were killed. Afghanistan was the most dangerous country for journalists followed by Mexico, Yemen, Syria, India, Pakistan, Somalia and United States.

According to the global press freedom watchdog’s Annual Prison Census, 251 journalists are currently in jail around the world on different charges related to their journalistic work. There only crime is that they engaged in independent journalism to bring out the truth. Turkey has the most number of journalists in prison and stands at 68, followed by China with 47 Egypt with 25.

It is generally believed that undemocratic and authoritarian regimes pose threats to freedom of press and expression. But in recent years this trend seems to be spreading to the established democracies in the West. History tells us that democracy and freedom of the press rise and fall together. No real democracy can survive without freedom of the media and expression. Both the quality of democracy and media freedom are on the decline. According to Freedom House, only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press; 87 percent of the population either enjoys partial freedom of the press or has no freedom of the press and of expression.

The recent arrest of Julian Assange and his 50-week long sentence by a London court in a bail-skipping offence dated back to 2012 is not a good sign for media freedoms. He has been kept in a high-security prison known as the British Guantanamo Bay since his arrest in April. He has been treated as a terrorist. Assange’s only crime is that he dared to reveal the dirty and embarrassing secrets of the powerful American deep state and ruling class. WikiLeaks and Assange exposed the cruelty, torture and killings faced by the civilian population in Iraq and Afghanistan. It exposed the massive spying and surveillance of its own citizens and world leaders. So the deep state and Trump administration wants to make him an example for others who might be thinking to take on the might of the American state.

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