If those three countries make up something of a rouge’s gallery for press freedom, then it is fitting to have four journalists on stage at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival, on a panel called My Crime is Journalism.
Lina Attalah is was one of the Egyptian journalists beaten by security forces while she was covering the 2011 uprising. Described by Time Magazine as “muckraker of the Arab World”, she is co-founder and Chief Editor of Mada Masr, a Cairo-based news website ‘to secure a home for a dislocated practice of independent journalism that did not survive in mainstream organizations.’
Like Lina, Irina Borogan understands viscerally what a lack of press freedom looks like. A Russian journalist, Irina specialises in investigating the Russian security services – a job that has already put her in front of FSB agents.
And perhaps most famously of all, Rappler editor Maria Ressa made it to the cover of Time Magazine for her courageous defence of press freedom in the face of the Filipino government’s continued pressure.
So, why then is the fourth panellist Steve Coll, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York? Surely the United States, with its First Amendment proudly embedding press freedom into the DNA of its constitution, has no place among such a group.
Perhaps. But RSF puts the USA at #48, behind the likes of Botswana (#44), Papua New Guinea (#38) and Burkina Faso (#36). That is partly because the President himself has dismissed critical reporting as “fake news”, branded the press “the enemy of the people” and locked several journalists out of the White House press briefings. That appears to have unleashed a plague of bomb threats at newsrooms across the country, and in June 2018, a gunman entered the Capital Gazette in Virginia, killing five people including four journalists.
Of course, rankings tell us nothing about the global trends. RSF, the CPJ both agree with the assessment of a third democracy watchdog, Freedom House. In its annual report, it declared that press freedom is in the worst state for a decade.
“The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming,” the report said.
However abstract the idea of press freedom might feel to Australians, it is something we all ought to be discussing.
Peter Greste moderates the My Crime is Journalism Antidote panel, featuring Lina Attalah, Irina Borogan, Steve Coll and Maria Ressa. Attalah also appears on the Who Gets to Speak panel. Both sessions are supported by Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.