On press freedom, sustainability and international cooperation
Jonathan Heawood reflects on World Press Freedom Day and announces PINF's membership with the Global Forum for Media Development.
When I worked as a literary journalist at the Observer newspaper, the biggest threat to my freedom came from angry readers who didn’t like something I’d written about their favourite author. Until one day I bumped into the harder edge of press freedom.
I’d commissioned a review of a book about Italian politics. In the course of the piece, our reviewer repeated some of the book’s allegations about Silvio Berlusconi, then Prime Minister of Italy. This made the Observer’s inhouse lawyer extremely anxious. She was worried that Berlusconi – notoriously litigious – would sue. So, the review was quietly rewritten to avert the risk of a costly libel action.
This was how I found out how the rich and powerful can shut down unwanted coverage without even lifting a finger. I went on to spend seven years at English PEN, a charity promoting the freedom to read and the freedom to write. I met many journalists, editors and bloggers from around the world who had been imprisoned or tortured for their work. I pushed for the reform of English libel law to protect public interest journalism. And I campaigned for justice for those who had paid for press freedom with their lives, such as Anna Politkovskaya in Russia and Hrant Dink in Turkey.
So, I always pause for thought on World Press Freedom Day, which is marked each year on 3 May. It is all too easy to take press freedom for granted in the UK. But we are only as free as the least free among us. And it is less than a year since the British journalist Dom Phillips and his Brazilian colleague Bruno Pereira were murdered in the Amazon. As the journalist Natalia Viana said at this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia, ‘environmental journalism is only going to become more dangerous’ as polluting states and corporations push back against scrutiny.
Some people might think that questions of press freedom are a long way from the things we usually talk about at PINF – how to sustain public interest news here in the UK. But the two issues are tightly intertwined. ‘To be independent, first you have to survive,’ said the Indian publisher Ritu Kapur in Perugia. Or, in the words of the Norwegian editor Kjersti Loken Stavrum, ‘a free press is not a poor press – you need sustainable economics in the media house to ensure true media freedom.’
That’s why we care about the sustainability of news publishing – because it is one of the fundamental conditions for press freedom. It’s why we visit communities and ask them what a local news that works for them and speaks to them would look like. It’s why we invite news providers to share their experiences and challenges with us, and learn about what might help them thrive. And it’s why we advocate in Parliament and with the Government on behalf of independent news providers and the communities they serve.
Only when a news organisation has sustainable revenues can it have the confidence to publish journalism in the public interest. But the freedom and sustainability of journalists in the UK is also tied up with the freedom and sustainability of our colleagues in other countries.
And so to mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, we at PINF are delighted to join the Global Forum for Media Development, the international community of journalism support organisations. Journalism faces a range of threats, both hard and soft. We can deal with them all more effectively by working together. And with members from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, GFMD gives us the opportunity to collaborate with partners around the world.