Silence kills democracy

Today, World Press Freedom Day, is a day to celebrate the journalists among us who refuse to stay silent: journalists such as Mexico’s Anabel Hernández.

Death threats and intimidation have failed to stop Ms Hernández exposing the links between drug cartels and organised crime, business, police and government. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous and violent parts of the world for journalists to work in, and her brave investigative reporting on corruption and abuse of power in her country won Ms Hernández the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom, a global prize for defending the right to freedom of expression presented by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Today we salute journalists, editors, cartoonists, photographers and the increasing number of citizen journalists who make a noise despite great risk to their personal safety: those who won’t yield to intimidation.

“Corruption grows through silence,” warns Hernández. “If journalists of my generation keep silent, if we give up our work for fear or complicity, journalists after us will be condemned to kneel to this corruption.” She hopes to stay alive to continue to investigate and document Mexico’s drug cartels.

Staying alive is never a given. In the past year 64 journalists have died doing their jobs. Last year’s Golden Pen of Freedom laureate, Dawit Isaak, a journalist of dual Eritrean-Swedish nationality and one of the founders of Eritrea’s first independent newspaper Setit, has vanished inside the Eritrean prison system where he has been detained without charge or trial for the past 11 years. Despite efforts by international organisations to trace him, he has not been heard of since 2009. Four journalists arrested with Mr Isaak in 2001 have since died in detention, and there are now serious doubts that he is still alive.

We also salute the bravery of Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, who despite being beaten and having his hands broken by pro-government thugs in August 2011, is drawing again. And Russian investigative journalist Eleana Milashina, who, despite the death of colleagues including Anna Politskovskaya, as well as threats to her own life, continues to cover human rights violations in the North Caucasus region.

These are but a few high-profile examples of brave journalists who refuse to bow to pressure. Around the world, the methods used to silence them vary greatly.

In China, government censorship and firewalls seem to be expanding to counteract growing social media networks.

In Pakistan, threats and violence are used to silence journalists. In the past five years, 38 journalists have been killed – many of them while carrying out their duties.

Commercial pressure in countries such as Argentina make media owners scared to publish anything that might offend for fear of losing government and government-linked advertising revenue.

In other countries, particularly some new democracies in Eastern Europe and Africa, journalists and publishers censor themselves and by avoiding criticizing business and government, they hope to ensure favour through continued advertising, sponsorship and access.

Particularly in Africa, insult laws and criminal defamation legislation are widely used to outlaw criticism of politicians and those in authority. In South Africa, proposed legislation will stifle investigation and could see journalists found in possession of classified information sanctioned for committing a criminal offence.

It is not always easy to love the media. But the benefits of a free press are obvious whether it exposes corruption or abuse of power, uncovers public policy failures or simply informs the public about the issues they need to know to perform their civic responsibilities.

It is no coincidence that democratic countries with a free press reduce corruption and attain higher levels of development. Democratic countries with a free press have never suffered from famine, as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has argued. People in power are often isolated from the poorest in a country, but if they are exposed to criticism from the media and held accountable at the next election with an uncensored press, they are urged to avoid such crisis.

Freedom of the press implies freedom to criticize. Throughout history, criticism and the courage to doubt have been a driving force of change and development of society. There is a connection between the philosopher Socrates, who in the year 399 B.C. was forced to drink poison because his many critical questions had allegedly corrupted the minds of the youth of Athens, and courageous journalists and editors in today’s world who question the state of society and the actions of people in power.

Freedom of expression as a principle is centuries old. It rests on the insight that man must be able to communicate freely to be free. Today all developed countries have discovered that doubt, question and dissent do not weaken a nation. On the contrary, they make it stronger.

The history of democracy shows that a free press isn’t something that is added only after nations obtain better education, health and economic development. It is at the very foundation of conditions that lead to them.

Today we honour editors and journalists who put their life in danger because of their reporting or commentary. We support those journalists and publishers who do their jobs despite restrictions and impunity. And as Golden Pen laureate Anabel Hernández warns, silence makes us complicit and kills democracy.


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