By Dr. Panagiotis Sfaelos*
A Swiss journalist and publisher Jacob Meyer said that: “Publication is the soul of justice”. Indeed, without freedom of press, justice and democracy cannot exist. Press is at the core of any democratic polity and any liberal constitution. The publication of the truth is an important task for the functioning of democracy itself. Journalists are obliged to inform accurately and timely the citizens. Citizens have an inalienable right to objective information. Journalism is rightly considered the fourth power that controls the other three powers (legislative, executive, judicial). So, journalists must always be against any government regardless of their party preferences and their criticism helps the government to be consistent with its commitments and not to deviate from them. But if journalists are silenced or there is interference in their work, then journalism ceases to function in favour of the citizens and becomes a propaganda tool. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights which is binding EU law.
The question, however, is whether we have freedom of the press in practice. Are the media and journalists really independent? The dependence of the media and the interventions of the political power suppress the freedom of expression. Indeed, press freedom is being challenged everywhere today. According to a recent survey by the organization “Reporters without Borders”, press freedom in many member states is at a very low level. This is a very worrying phenomenon. Although Europe has traditionally had shown great respect for the free press, we have recently seen a suppression of that freedom.
The European Parliament, in a resolution in November 2020, condemned “the efforts of some Member State governments to silence the critical media and to undermine freedom and pluralism”. MEPs have expressed particular concern about the state of the media in some EU countries, where they are now “an example of pro-government propaganda”. Especially in the time of the pandemic, we have many examples where press freedom in countries such as Hungary. The emergency measures taken by some governments in response to the Covid-19 outbreak had an impact on press freedom.
Another survey by the “Reporters without Borders” found that about 361 journalists are currently being held, about 30 fewer than the 389 in 2019. Nearly a third is in China. The rest are concentrated in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran, Bahrain and Yemen. In Turkey, in particular, journalists are imprisoned every day by the Erdogan regime. In Russia, Alexei Navalni was imprisoned because he criticized the Kremlin. It is really sad in the year 2021, journalists are being persecuted because they just reveal the truth.
Journalists must be free and independent to cover the news. The government and the owners of the media must respect the freedom of the press and not interfere in the work of journalists. Indeed, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few threatens pluralism. Newspapers have slipped out of the hands of journalists – publishers and have passed on to businessmen and are therefore subject to various interests. The financial crisis has brought many media to the brink of bankruptcy, making them dependent. In order to survive financially, they are forced to make compromises promoting specific interests. In fact, there are phenomena of violation of press freedom as pressures are exerted on journalists in favor of one or the other point of view, while the websites that are responsible for controlling fake news are not always objective. It is doubtful as to what extent those responsible for checking fake news are independent or serve various interests. Fake news must be controlled by objective and independent professionals. Otherwise fact checking becomes pure censorship.
The issue of fake news is crucial, as in the fast-paced electronic journalism, there is no proper verification of news. Social media convey news that may not be verified and affect the lives of millions of people. Citizens become journalists by sharing news on Facebook which usually have not been verified. Since citizens are staying on the surface of the news as they post news that they may not even have read completely, it is very difficult to get accurate information. Other times fake news is also spread on purpose by various regimes to pursue their own interests. Countries use fake news even to influence international public opinion. Spreading fake news also serves hybrid wars that some countries want to wage in a globalized environment, as networks are interconnected and interconnected.
Measures need to be taken to safeguard press freedom at a time when journalists are being persecuted or lose their lives worldwide. Further, journalists must allow the opposite views to be heard on an equal footing. Journalists must also be objective and put their political party preferences aside when practicing journalism. When they write opinion articles with their signature, of course, they can and must express their opinion. The comment though must stand out from the news. Silencing or distorting the news is anti-democratic as it reinforces certain views on the citizens. Even half truth is misinformation.
“Yellow” journalism discredits conscientious journalists. Those who seek to bring out the truth at all costs. Investigative journalists who do not stop unless they reveal the whole truth. Such journalists even risk their lives in order to seek the truth or fight against totalitarian regimes. Journalist ethics should not be compromised for profit. A journalist is the ear and the eye of the people. He is the link between citizens and governments. So, he/she must be free from pressure and fear. The journalist should not be liked by the government but by his readers and viewers as this is the source of his power and he is accountable to them.
The citizens are also responsible to filter the news. They should read all the newspapers and not only those that say what they want to hear. Citizens must be educated to choose how to be informed and to be critical of the media. A responsible citizen is the informed citizen and must demand objective information. Otherwise he/she becomes an accomplice in the misinformation and abuse of his democratic rights and freedoms.
In the age of e-journalism and the internet, the state, journalists’ associations and stakeholders must thoroughly control the functioning of the media, the journalists and safeguard the right to the truth. Times have changed, we live in a globalized world and a digital reality, journalism is changing and we need to adapt. Misinformation is taking place worldwide. International cooperation of journalists’ associations and governments is needed to stop misinformation and targeted information. A new legal framework is also needed and is now beginning to take shape. We must all work together to safeguard free and independent media, justice, individual rights and, ultimately, the democracy itself.
*Dr. Panagiotis Sfaelos is Lawyer, Political Scientist, Journalist, Secretary General of the Association of European Journalists (Greek Section), Member of the Arbitration Committee of the International Board of the Association of European Journalists, Member of the National Union of Journalists (UK) and the International Federation of Journalists. Research Director of the Center for International Strategic Analysis (KEDISA) and Academic