By Natasja Sheriff
This is the first in a series of posts on issues at the intersection of press freedom, religion, digital media and politics by Revealer contributing editor Natasja Sheriff.
On May 3, 2013, a group of journalists, press freedom advocates and members of the public, gathered to mark World Press Freedom Day at NYU’s journalism school, shared a poignant moment. As a panel discussion on global trends in press freedom got under way, Kassahun Yilma, an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in the U.S., paused as he began his presentation. “Before I start telling my story about Ethiopia,” he said quietly, “I would like a minute of silence.” As we stood and the room fell silent, he asked that we pray for Ethiopia, for journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, and journalists around the world.
Just a day before, the Ethiopian Supreme Court upheld a sentence condemning Eskinder Nega to 18 years in jail on vague charges of terrorism. Nega is just one of more than 100 journalists worldwide who, at the close of 2012, were imprisoned on anti-state charges of terrorism, treason and subversion, often related to ideological and religious persecution. This alarming statistic emerged during one of the deadliest years for journalists on record, prompting Amnesty International, in collaboration with the NYU Center for Religion and Media, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Overseas Press Club, UNESCO and the Global and Joint Studies Program at NYU Journalism to convene a symposium to mark the 20th Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.
World Press Freedom Day, held annually on May 3, was first observed in 1993 following the U.N. endorsement of the Windhoek Declaration (a statement on the principles of press freedom) and has become a global event. Since its inception, the day has acted as “a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics,” according to UNESCO, the organization that first championed a day for press freedom.
“We’ve seen real progress in 20 years, increasing numbers of countries have put in place freedom of information laws, constitutions,” said UNESCO’s Suzanne Bilello (video), introducing the May 3 event, but “far too many countries continue to criminalize expression and journalists continue to be penalized with prison terms for libel.”
“I hope one day, this day of freedom of press, will really be a celebration and happy for every part of the world,” said Iranian journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi during a panel discussion on global trends in press freedom (video). “But right now for large numbers of countries in the world, like Iran, or other places, it’s just a reminder of what we don’t have, what we lost, who we lost.”
From Turkey to Iran, Mexico to Ethiopia and the United States, the issues raised by the day’s speakers—issues that most threatened journalists and a free press—were remarkably similar: the use of anti-terrorism and national security laws to silence journalists; the tyranny of blasphemy laws and the suppression of religious freedom; arbitrary “red-lines” that journalists might unwittingly cross; and the “opportunities and vulnerabilities” brought about by access to the internet and digital media. The Revealer has reported on Russia, Pakistan and Ethiopia as these issues played out in the case of Pussy Riot, in the use of blasphemy laws to oppress the Ahmadi community and in the application of anti-terrorism laws, like those used to jail Nega, in Ethiopia.
These same themes echoed throughout the day as journalists Ann Cooper and George Packer (video) drew attention to the intersection of religion and press freedom as they discussed the insidious impact that charges of blasphemy can have on freedom of speech, and press freedom.
“I guess this is a subject that maybe doesn’t strike Americans very much, because we have no history of blasphemy laws in this country,” said Packer, but “I’d say [there is] a really worrying tendency towards self censorship among writers, journalists; people that have a public voice when it comes to religion; and when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics, which is especially crucial.”
In 2013, as the symposium took place, deadly attacks on journalists in Syria, Iraq and Egypt dominated the headlines and Turkey won the unenviable title of the world’s number one jailer of journalists; repressive laws silenced and imprisoned journalists and activists from Ethiopia to Russia; digital freedom and domestic surveillance, in the guise of national security measures and anti-terrorism laws, touched the lives of every citizen.
Is there cause for optimism in 2014? Are we any closer to celebrating press freedom, as Mirebrahimi hoped? To what extent are press freedom and larger issues of freedom of expression related? As Angela Zito, co-director of NYU Center for Religion and Media, asked during the symposium’s morning session, where are the points of intersection between religion, politics, digital media and human rights? These are just some of the questions The Revealer will be asking in a series of posts as we revisit press freedom and the May 2013 symposium, one year on. We hope you’ll have a look back at some of the previous articles mentioned here and that you’ll join us as we explore this topic further in the next post.
Natasja Sheriff is an freelance journalist based in New York. From 2012-2014 she was the Luce Foundation Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media and served as The Revealer’s international editor. Natasja co-organized the Information on Trial event with members of Amnesty International Local Group AI280.