To maintain a free press, we must fight the global siege against it

With the closure of Stand News, a pro-democracy news site in Hong Kong, at the end of 2021, the alarms signaling the continuing erosion of press freedom around the world have become deafening. 

Chinese government officials claim its content and editorial stance violate the 2020 National Security Law, which international human rights groups around the world have uniformly criticizedIn a statement issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, national security police arrested at least six current or former directors and senior staff of Stand News early in the morning of Dec. 29 on suspicion of “conspiracy to distribute seditious publications”.  

The shuttering of Stand News, following the protracted attacks on Apple Daily by China and the recent closure of Citizen News, are further evidence of the erosion of press freedom and the corresponding threat this poses to the future of democracy.

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As new resolutions are being made into the new year and individual and collective introspection and goal setting are still commonplace, the democracy and human rights community must chart a new course of action for reversing global backsliding on democratic rights and freedoms, particularly the erosion of press freedom. A simple but critical resolution should be made: Take urgent collective action to safeguard and protect freedom of the press around the world. 

Like climate change, freedom of the press is of universal concern. Often cited as the lynchpin of democracy, press freedom is the foundation for a functioning civil society. This was recently recognized with the awarding of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which the Nobel committee said is a pre-condition for democracy and lasting peace.

Throughout the course of the two years of the coronavirus pandemic, repressive governments around the world have weaponized fake news and prosecuted a war against fact-based information. They have exploited the pandemic to restrict press freedom and enact laws and policies leading to arrests, harassment, and intimidation. 

In December, Reporters Without Borders reported that 488 journalists and media workers were detained around the world, the highest number since the group began publishing its annual analysis in 1995. According to Freedom House, less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a country with a free press, the smallest proportion since 1995.

The need to focus on journalism and freedom of expression as part of democratic renewal was a major theme of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in which his administration pledged support for strengthening free and independent media. The call to put media freedom front and center for donors like USAID is particularly encouraging, but we need more donors and governments to follow suit. Donor funding alone will not solve the problem, however. We need a seismic shift in our collective efforts to prioritize the importance that media plays in a democratic society. 

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As Kate Musgraves documented in her October report for the Center for International Media Assistance, the absence of press freedom leads to some particularly grim prospects for democracy: Democratic stagnation and decline remain inextricably linked to the simultaneous erosion of press freedom and independence. The report documents this clearly with case studies from Hungary, India, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the Philippines.

The erosion of press freedom over the past nearly 20 years has hit a major tipping point with the latest developments in Hong Kong, sending shock waves that have reverberated around the world. The implication is the fundamental freedoms associated with democracy and enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights are under siege. Reading and watching the coverage of crackdowns in Hong Kong is so alarming because in America’s own democratic backsliding, and in the aftermath of what we’ve witnessed in countries like Hungary, the Philippines and Turkey, we must recognize that what has happened in Hong Kong can now happen anywhere.

As we embark on 2022 and chart our course of action around the issues and causes that matter most to us, we would all be well-served to not stand idly by as we watch Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society fall apart and disappear. We cannot choose to look the other way or scroll down to the next item on our news feed. We must stand up and voice our support for its journalists, academics and human rights advocates and we must do so in solidarity.  

The message is clear: A new generation of democracy promotion is needed and new approaches, tactics and energy will be required to protect and safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms that we often take for granted.

Ann Hudock, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Counterpart International, an international development organization that partners with local organizations to build inclusive, sustainable communities in which people thrive.

Susan Abbott is an international media and civil society researcher and Counterpart International’s senior technical expert for Civil Society and Media Development.