In an article first published in Expressen, Swedish Radio CEO and EBU Executive Board member Cilla Benkö writes about how we must protect freedom of the press on World Press Freedom Day.
Having free access to information and allowing all voices to be heard – or not. That’s what freedom of speech and freedom of the press are ultimately about. And that is why we must all cherish and defend free journalism, particularly in uncertain times when it increasingly comes under fire.
On 3 May we observe World Press Freedom Day, this year with an emphasis on freedom of the press as a basic necessity for other human rights. The situation is urgent, particularly when democracy as a form of government is being challenged in more and more places around the world. The Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg says the number of democracies in the world has shrunk to 1986 levels, and freedom of the press is often the first victim when a democracy crumbles.
We see this clearly in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Independent media in Russia have been censored, blocked and dismantled. Individual journalists have been censured and in March the US journalist Evan Gershkovich from the Wall Street Journal was arrested and imprisoned in Yekaterinburg on charges of espionage. Russian forces have taken control of the flow of information and the Russian population is paying the price.
But there are trends that worry me even in Sweden. The University of Gothenburg’s SOM survey indicates that a majority of the Swedish population is prepared to make temporary restrictions to democracy to resolve urgent issues such as environmental and climate crises, pandemics, financial crises and crime. The war in Ukraine has shaken people and, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, impacted how we see the world.
But in times of crisis and unrest, it is particularly important to remember how crucial it is to have access to free, credible information. In Sweden we have a long, strong tradition of freedom of the press, but this is not the case in many countries. So we must never take freedom of the press for granted. The demand for free reporting is strong. At Swedish Radio we saw that clearly when Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year – as many as a half-million brand-new listeners sought out our live reporting. That’s in a country of just 10 million.
In connection with this year’s World Press Freedom Day, I am travelling to Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to meet with the Swedish Embassies in a joint initiative to shine a spotlight on the immense importance of the freedom of independent media and the safety of journalists.
More than five years have passed since the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak, who was investigating corruption and tax evasion, and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The trail led to a well-known businessman with ties to the ruling elite in the country, and the murder led to major protests in which fed-up Slovaks filled the streets and squares. Judges, top politicians and police chiefs had to leave their posts as a result.
The Slovakian people’s protests confirmed something meaningful: We must all be the guardians of freedom of the press. Because a journalist does not just represent themselves, they represent all of us. The journalist asks the uncomfortable questions, takes the powerful to task and highlights the voices that otherwise might not be heard.
In closing, I would like to quote the American historian Timothy Snyder, when he attended the Swedish Academy conference on freedom of speech and democracy earlier this spring and was asked why freedom of speech must not be restricted, for example by making lies punishable.
“The lies of the very powerful is not what is in danger. It is the truth of those who don’t have power that is in danger.”
That’s something to think about on World Press Freedom Day.
Cilla Benkö, CEO of Swedish Radio