States are beginning to play a direct role in supporting press freedomThe declining state of freedom of expression in the subcontinent needs more exposure.
The state and media are on a collision course. Institutionalised democracies provide enough space for press freedom but autocracies infringe upon this space. Several global powers have historically used media as an instrument of public diplomacy. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), for example, started foreign language services from the late 1930s and now broadcasts in 40 regional languages.
Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle and now China Radio International were and are certainly part of that diplomacy and public outreach. But there has barely been any evidence in global political history that the incumbent governments themselves functioned as campaigners to extend the scope of media freedom. Breaking this tradition, governments of the United Kingdom and Canada organised the Global Media Freedom Conference last month in July, in London. According to the organisers, more than 1000 delegates from 113 countries participated. Both governments also committed to making the global conference an annual global event and pledged to set up a media safety fund.
According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation records, in 2018 alone, 99 journalists were killed either by the state actors or due to the states' failure to provide adequate security. Scores were injured and/or jailed globally. All of them were victims of powers who only want to hear the truth convenient to them. The casualties were mostly in the countries with prolonged conflict like Syria, or Mexico where drug barons rule the roost. Similarly, countries with rightwing governments, like Brazil and India, are less tolerant of criticism, where state-sponsored vigilantism is on the rise.
The conference featured extreme cases of oppression and assassinations that had drawn universal attention and impacted global diplomacy. UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions of journalists, Agnes Callamard, who investigated into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, challenged the G20 governments to severe diplomatic ties with the Saudi Kingdom. Matthew Caruana, journalist and son of murdered Maltese journalist and anti-corruption activist Daphne Caruana Galizia, vowed to continue reporting high profile corruption cases that his mother had daringly pioneered despite all odds. Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Filipino online news portal Rappler, who now works from outside the country due to threats to her life, shared the painful experience of atrocities faced by a woman journalist exposing government excesses. Experiences of a Ghanaian journalist not willing to be recognised for obvious threats back home and the story of Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam—who spent 100 days behind bars—mirrored the grotesque face of elected dictatorships of the 21st century.
All these reports, evaluations and experiences were undoubtedly invaluable. But they represent only a certain set of characteristics of the regimes. On the one hand, there remains a certain degree of democracy and functional media industries still exist. There are rules and procedures to ensure citizens' rights. On the other, the major problem was a violation of the same by the state actors. An obsessive predilection only on these set of regimes and regions precluded those countries where media freedom never took root in their modern history. Media in such countries is never recognised as the 'fourth estate' but as a mere wing of the party propaganda machine, like in China or Vietnam. In some other countries, like Russia and, now, India, self-censorship has become the norm.
A global conference of this scale also failed to recognise these 'dark spots' on media freedom. It would have been palatable in the past when the policies, including those related to media, of those countries barely mattered to the outside world. But now, countries like China wield huge economic and strategic influence globally in general and regional geopolitics in particular.
It is neither a complaint nor criticism. China, for example, seeks to change the entire meta-narrative of both democracy and development. It has achieved economic growth and prosperity for its people without democratising the regime or ensuring media freedom. On the contrary, the free media in democratic countries could hardly instill rationality in the electorates while using their suffrage on Brexit and the US presidential or Indian parliamentary elections. Now, dozens of so-called institutionalised democracies of the West are leaning on China for economic and commercial cooperation regardless of its human or media rights records.
The global conference had two glaring caveats. First, it was rather preoccupied with high profile cases. The problems associated with media freedom and journalists' professional hazards in the countries where there existed at least some form of journalism (and democracy) were brought to the fore while completely ignoring the fate of at least one-fifth of global humanity that never experienced either democracy or media freedom. Second, media situation in the critical regions like trans-Himalayas, where two giants of the world (China and India)—comprising more than 40 percent of the global population—compete to extend their wing of influence, was hardly reflected or debated. This barely helped to develop a true 'global' perspective on the subject.
Despite the fact that countries like Nepal also did find a place in at least one panel, the future of both democracy and media freedom in the emerging regional geopolitics was completely overlooked; perhaps conspicuously. For example, a number of Nepal's newly proposed bills are designed to curtail the media and several other freedoms. The government's temerity to propose such legislation emanates from the fact that it dreams of emulating the Chinese model of economic growth and prosperity without democracy. If that is the new model for development and citizen engagement for the rest of the 21st century, discussing media freedom barely makes any sense. If media freedom is actually a global issue, the conference should have not left out discussing the declining state of freedom of expression in the subcontinent.
This perhaps could well be an inevitable agenda for the next edition of the conference proposed in Canada. Regardless of anything, state ownership to the cause of media freedom heralds a new era to revitalise now globally wavering democracy.
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