Freedom of press is more and more under attack © Pixabay

A call for action to preserve press freedom worldwide
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day is celebrated, dedicated to honoring the fundamental principles of independent journalism
1 May 2024

World Press Freedom Day serves as a reminder of the essential role journalism and journalists play in promoting transparency, accountability, and democracy. At Reporters Without Borders (RSF), we promote journalistic freedom, pluralism and independence and defend those who embody these ideals.

World Press Freedom Day marks the publication of our annual World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the environment for journalism in 180 countries. This is a powerful light shed on the evolving landscape of journalism and press freedom across the globe.

A deteriorating trend in press freedom around the world has been widely observed in recent years, with many countries exhibiting increasing hostility towards journalists and independent media outlets. Governments in various parts of the world have employed tactics ranging from censorship and legal harassment to outright violence against media professionals, stifling dissent and critical voices. From physical assaults and imprisonment to targeted killings, journalists continue to confront numerous threats to their safety, particularly in conflict zones and authoritarian regimes. Moreover, economic pressures, political interference, and corporate influence have undermined the autonomy of media organizations, compromising their ability to report freely and objectively.

The digital age has introduced new challenges, including online harassment, surveillance, misinformation campaigns and sustainability challenges. Within democratic societies, divisions are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media and the spread of disinformation circuits that are amplified by the way social media functions. At the international level, democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms, while waging propaganda wars against democracies. Polarization on these two levels is fueling increased tension. The climax of this trend was revealed by the 2023 Press Freedom Index, which shows enormous volatility in situations. This instability is the result of increased aggressiveness on the part of the authorities in many countries and growing animosity towards journalists on social media and in the physical world; but also the consequence of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools of manufacturing it.

The press plays an important role in today’s world © Pixabay

In that context, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts. And there are many challenges to protecting it. Appropriate regulation of digital platforms and social media is needed for democratic guarantees in the global space of information. A regulatory approach tailored to the structuring function of digital platforms is now necessary. The creation of a third status is needed for them, between that of host, devoid of responsibilities, and that of publisher, endowed with editorial responsibility and freedom. In this sense, platforms could be considered as ‘public utilities,’ imposing obligations on them like political and religious neutrality, transparency, accountability on illicit content, and due diligence in amplifying reliable sources of information… 

The RSF-initiated Partnership on Information and Democracy, which has now gathered 52 signatory States from all regions, has produced innovative recommendations for public policy and regulation that are inspiring lawmakers in a number of states.

Regulating artificial intelligence to ensure information integrity is another key step. Some AI systems play a structuring role in the collection, processing and dissemination of information. These systems must provide guarantees and be subject to legal obligations in terms of security, respect for the ethical values of journalism and pluralism of information, respect for intellectual property rights, and transparency. Furthermore, the malicious use of AI by individuals or organizations must lead to criminal sanctions. Such uses include the intentional dissemination of deep fakes for the purposes of manipulation, slander or defamation, or the deployment of AI systems for dangerous or malicious purposes (political manipulation, violation of privacy, plagiarism). Finally, conversational agents could soon be the gateway to journalistic news. Such systems must therefore offer guarantees of pluralism and reliability of sources, as well as contributing to the sustainability of journalism, as proposed by the RSF-initiated Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) ISO-type standard.

Global challenges to press freedom, information integrity and the right to reliable information have complexified. They require determined, audacious and global answers. In the run-up to the Summit of the Future, to the definition of a Global Digital Compact and a Code of Conduct for information integrity on digital platforms, addressing them is indispensable. 

* Antoine Bernard is Director of Advocacy and Assistance, and Anne Bocandé is Editorial Directorat Reporters Without Borders.
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