Just a few weeks ago on May 2 and 3, events celebrating the 25th World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) were held in Accra, Ghana—attended by more than nine hundred participants from around the world. Convened by UNESCO, many of the proceedings highlighted the numerous dangers those who bring news and information to the world continue to face in the line of duty. In the digital world we live in today it is not only news professionals who are in danger of being attacked for doing their job, but also ordinary citizens who take advantage of new technologies to gather and share information in the public interest.
The threats posed by online and digital communication were highlighted at the Academic Conference which was held as part of WPFD events in Accra. The School of Information and Communication Studies at the University of Ghana, where I work, was one of UNESCO’s collaborators on the academic conference, which focused specifically on the safety of journalists. The discussions brought into sharp focus the chilling effect various digital threats have on the work of journalists. APN alumnus Admire Mare’s presentation, for example, pointed out how invasive communication surveillance, location tracking, metadata retention, and government intimidation in South Africa and Zimbabwe are forcing investigative journalists to abandon the use of smartphones in their newsgathering operations in order to protect their sources and the outcomes of their work.
Surveillance changes and makes more difficult the way journalists in #Zimbabwe and #SouthAfrica report and communicate with their sources. It has broken trust between journalists and the technology they use for their work, says @admire2mare at #WorldPressFreedomDay in #Ghana pic.twitter.com/L6WN1z2bqG
— Jonathan Rozen (@Rozen_J) May 2, 2018
Presenters also shared research on other dangers journalists continue to face not only from hostile governments but also a plethora of non-state actors. Amin Alhassan of the University for Development Studies, and Felix Odartey-Wellington of Cape Breton University, noted in their presentation how vigilante groups in the conflict-prone northern part of Ghana—political activists, sports and religious fanatics, and partisans in chieftaincy conflicts—are using violence to intimidate radio stations that air content they do not like.
Work by the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield, UK, which also collaborated on the academic conference, highlighted the need for regular monitoring of media. CFOM’s monitoring activities have been useful in demonstrating how dangerous journalism continues to be. Journalists face harassment and intimidation on and offline, are in danger of kidnapping and execution, and continue to be killed in conflict zones by both state and non-state actors.
Physical threats are not the only tribulations journalists and information intermediaries confront. Many grapple with mental conditions which are often unaddressed and untreated. As the research presented by Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto illustrates, journalists who cover war and conflict in different parts of the world show clear signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which are seldom dealt with, and so they continue to suffer in silence.
World Press Freedom Day events ended with a 71-point communique calling on all countries, UNESCO, journalists, media outlets, social media practitioners, internet intermediaries, as well as civil society, academia, and the technical community, to take specific measures to protect freedom of expression and the rights of those who work in the media.
With official ceremonies marking WPFD over, it is imperative that the Accra Declaration translates into concrete action. We must put pressure on all countries to create better, more enabling environments for media to do their job, and we must remain vigilant in monitoring and fighting crimes against those who work in the media space.