It’s heartening to be here with so many great journalists and so many more from around the world who stand up for journalists and the rights that make our work possible. You have my admiration and gratitude, especially those of you fighting for the public’s right to know in places where press freedom remains dangerously contested. Thirty years ago, the UN General Assembly established World Press Freedom Day as an opportunity to bring the international community together each year to recognize the importance of press freedom and the foundational role journalists play in supporting human rights and free societies.
I’m here to tell you today that this vision is at great risk. All over the world, independent journalists and press freedoms are under attack. Without journalists to provide news and information that people can depend on, I fear we will continue to see the unraveling of civic bonds, the erosion of democratic norms and the weakening of the trust — in institutions and in each other — that is so essential to the global order. But let’s rewind to that moment of great optimism 30 years ago. The fears, divisions and dangers of the Cold War had seemingly subsided.
‘More journalists are being killed for their work and number of imprisoned journalists has now reached a new record’
The emergence of new, if fragile, democracies promised expanded freedoms for millions. Technological advancements hinted at a way of making people all over the world more informed and connected. And news organizations, then enjoying historic financial strength, seemed well positioned to provide trustworthy information for a public eager to understand and engage with the broader world. But rather than heralding a new global embrace of journalism, this moment proved to be a short-lived highpoint. The same technology that gave journalists the opportunity to reach people everywhere also eroded the business model of news, forcing many thousands of newspapers around the world to shutter.
The digital outlets that emerged in their place were unable to fill the void, particularly in providing the local and investigative reporting that society depends on. The internet also unleashed the avalanche of misinformation, propaganda, punditry and clickbait that now overwhelms our information ecosystem, often drowning out credible journalism and accelerating the decline in societal trust. When the free press erodes, democratic erosion almost always follows. Sure enough, this period of weakness for the press has coincided with destabilized democracies and emboldened autocracies. And when democracy erodes, you can be sure the free press will be the first target.
‘In India, authorities have raided newsrooms and treated journalists as terrorists. In Russia, journalists face long prison terms’
All over the world, autocrats — and those who aspire to join their ranks — have used censorship, media repression and attacks on journalists to consolidate power. That’s because gaining control of information is essential to gaining control of everything else. In countries where press freedoms were strong, including the United States, journalists now face systematic campaigns to undermine their credibility, followed by attacks on the legal protections that safeguard their work. In countries where press freedoms were already weak, journalists now face surging levels of violence, detention and harassment.
More journalists are being killed for their work and the number of imprisoned journalists has now reached a new record. Spin a globe and you’ll find examples of these trends. In China, journalists are surveilled, intimidated and jailed. In Hungary, the government has rewritten laws to gain near-total control over the press. In Egypt, the government has used security services to buy up outlets and block uncooperative news sites. In Nicaragua, sustained crackdowns have forced journalists into exile. In India, authorities have raided newsrooms and treated journalists essentially as terrorists. And in Russia, journalists who dare to even acknowledge the war in Ukraine face long prison terms.
‘For nations with a strong tradition of a free press, this means leaders standing up to secure legal protections for independent reporters and their sources’
Here I want to draw attention to my former Times colleague Evan Gershkovich, now a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, who remains in Russian custody for sham charges and should be released. The cumulative story — as you’ll hear from panelists today — is of a worldwide assault on journalists, their work and the public’s right to know. And it will only be solved if the nations that make up this body take action. For nations with a strong tradition of a free press, including the United States, this means leaders standing up to secure legal protections for independent reporters and their sources.
For nations where reporting the truth remains perilous, this means the international community must make clear that it will call out and punish the crackdowns and attacks against journalists, no matter where they occur. These steps alone will not address the challenge facing the press. We still need a clear financial model for sustaining independent journalism. We still need a commitment from the digital giants to elevate independent journalism and ensure it stands apart from untrustworthy information on their platforms. We still need more of the public to value independent journalism enough to support it with their time, money and trust.
I make these entreaties today with little optimism. I’ve repeated this message to global leaders for more than six years — both in personal meetings and in large gatherings such as this. And yet the climate for press freedom has only become darker. But, at the same time, it’s impossible not to be inspired by the ways journalists continue to respond to these challenges. People like Maria Ressa, Jose Ruben Zamora, Pape Ale Niang and Austin Tice. Or to feel compelled to carry on the work of people like Jamal Khashoggi, Daphne Caruana Galizia, and Anna Politkovskaya. In an era of misinformation, countless journalists are fighting for the truth.
In an era of propaganda and strongmen, they’re relentlessly pursuing accountability. In an era of polarization, they’re fostering understanding. Truth. Accountability. Understanding. These are powerful gifts to the world. Today I ask the collected global leaders who make up the United Nations to ensure journalists everywhere can continue their essential work without fear of intimidation and reprisal. For it is their work that helps make your people freer, your societies more just, and the entire world better equipped to tackle its biggest challenges.
Jarida Daily is sharing opening remarks of Arthur Gregg
Sulzberger – publisher of The New York Times newspaper
– who delivered these remarks at the World Press Freedom
Day conference, hosted by UNESCO in New York City