The Fight for Free Expression is More Important than Ever

In their annual Freedom in the World survey, Freedom House reports that 2016 is the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. We have witnessed this contraction play out in every corner of the world, from rising nationalism and xenophobia in advanced democracies to the increasing powers of authoritarian regimes in closed states. As we watch these trends, we are reminded that the pursuit of information as a human right is an increasingly dangerous occupation, carried out by heroic individuals who put their lives on the line so that ours may be healthier, richer, and more informed.

This past year was particularly full of grief for those of us working toward this goal. My organization lost two heroic partners to senseless violence and witnessed the contraction of hard-won freedoms in places where information offers real hope of a different future.

In the late afternoon of July 11th, in Juba, South Sudan, John Gatluak Manguet Nhial was murdered in the renewed violence that tore through the city for four days. John was an exceptional journalist, a leader in the community and, at the time of his death, worked with Internews to build a network of local radio stations. While we do not have evidence to believe that John was targeted for his work as a journalist, we know that he was caught up in the violence due to his professional commitment to free expression. John was 32 years old, killed just as the transformational work he was leading for his country was starting to take off.

On the morning of July 20th, halfway across the world, a car bomb exploded in Kiev, instantly killing the Belarusian journalist, Pavel Sheremet. Pavel was a renowned investigative journalist in the post-Soviet world, fearless and doggedly independent in his work. We worked with Pavel in Russia, in Ukraine and across Eurasia, where he was a regular fixture at Internews journalism schools and workshops. He unfailingly inspired young journalists and served as a mentor and coach to dozens. He was 44.

Pavel was infamous for his commitment to uncovering the misdeeds of the corrupt officials in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. John Gatluak held a similar commitment in South Sudan, the youngest country in the world. He put it clearly to us years ago, “Being a journalist in South Sudan is risking one’s life. But I have dedicated myself to serving my community through radio as a watchdog, informing them about what the politicians are doing once the citizens elect them to power.”

The commitment to informing and holding officials to account is what animates the work of independent media in Afghanistan, one of the real success stories in the fragile and complex country. Since the complete eradication of media during Taliban rule, 15 years later there are now more than 700 active media outlets throughout Afghanistan.

In the northeastern corner of Afghanistan, in Kunduz, a small miracle emerged over the last decade in the form of a handful of women-owned and women-led radio stations that provided significant coverage of women’s issues. When the Taliban briefly retook Kunduz a year ago, these radio stations were among the first targets. They were all looted and destroyed.

A year later, a number of these stations are back up and broadcasting despite ongoing danger. This past June at one prominent station, whose staff is majority women, the on-air religion reporter was killed by a car bomb. The station’s founder reports that her staff has received threatening calls, saying that if they don’t stop broadcasting, they will all be killed. This same station has not only been rebuilt, but has added TV broadcasting to their radio programming. Internews is pleased to have been able to support these stations in their effort to get back on air. The first show discussed the link between peace, progress and women’s rights.

While the perpetrators of John and Pavel’s murders may never be held to account, and the future of independent media in Kunduz remains uncertain, these stories of loss and rebirth remind us that the practice of realizing the power of freedom of expression and information access is deeply dangerous in many parts of the world. As the latest statistics from Freedom House reveal, global freedom of the press is at its lowest point in 12 years. Only 13% of the global population enjoys a robust free press where the safety of journalists is guaranteed.

We must do better.

John, Pavel, and the women of Kunduz all raised their voices in protest and in joy, rushing headlong into danger, refusing the limits of their worlds and always pushing for more.

We too must push for more.

Those of us among the privileged 13% must never take for granted our capacity to express our ideas, to challenge authority and engage in healthy debate. We must cherish and nurture our freedoms, seeking always to improve our media, challenging them and ourselves to do better and to do more. We must demand the truth amid the growing information chaos, swirling rumors and ubiquitous innuendo that increasingly haunts our public dialogue.

We must return to the core moral commitment that animates freedom of expression and information access, helping to seed, support, and build the capacity both here and abroad for those seeking greater rights to freedom of expression.

As Pavel’s mother Lyudmila Stanislavovna urged at his funeral, “Make sure Pasha did not die in vain! Keep fighting! Demonstrate that things can be done differently!”

We intend to do just that.

Add your voice: For the 68th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we’re inviting people all over the world to raise their voices together, to say that information is a human right. Join our effort and lend your voice.

(Banner photo: Media, and particularly women in media, have faced enormous challenges in Afghanistan. Pictured here, the first Afghan Women and Media Conference was held this year in March, providing a platform for women in the media to take up issues such as professional capacity and safety and security, and discuss ways to address them.)

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)