World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2023

My recorded contribution to a Media4Change event in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius

Greetings from Bristol on yet another World Press Freedom Day. 

We, and the world, need a constant reminder not just about the significance of press freedom to the preservation of open democracies, but also to the risks our colleagues take by delving into what is happening behind closed doors that can directly affect our health and well being.

Corruption cannot survive when a light is shone upon its darkness, and we are – or should be – the torchbearers.

I am delighted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania feature with Ireland and the United Kingdom in the top 25 countries for freedom of the press, according to Reporters Without Borders. However, it saddens me that the UK is lower down the list than the others.

There are many reasons why this might be so, but the 11 year incarceration of Julian Assange is one of them. It is utterly shaming. He is awaiting extradition to the United States of America for exposing the deadly hypocrisy of countries that claim to lead the world in democratic values. 

It is equally shaming that President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, where press freedom has been under the cosh for generations, can use the imprisonment of Assange to dodge challenges from the BBC’s Orla Guerin about his controlling influence over the media. 

The last time I was there, a while back now, Aliyev was distributing free housing to compliant journalists, using the Secretary of the Journalist’s Union as his estate agent, based in a government office.

Traditional forms of oppression and censorship still abound, but we are now having to face more sophisticated and subtle means of undermining our efforts to inform the public.

There will always be those who truly reject both fear and favour, and are willing to risk their lives to provide access to verifiable facts. I commend to you the Forbidden Stories network – which continues the investigations of those who are killed for doing our job. I urge you to support them.

I would also like to take this opportunity to salute the courage and discipline of my colleagues from the Belarus Association of Journalists who now languish in jail or in exile, and to thank those in the Baltic States and beyond who have provided them with sanctuary.

But there will be others for whom ideology, or simply the get-rich-quick attractions of falling in with powerful forces is a motivating force.  Expounding false narratives – as is happening with those working for the Russian media mogul Malkevich in the annexed regions of Ukraine – gives our trade a bad name. And that name is propaganda – a gift to those who wish to destroy independent journalism.

It does not help, of course, that western mainstream media failed to properly interrogate the false narratives that led the west into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The loss of countless lives should have been lessons enough to those working in the mainstream.

But we now have to contend with the latest weapons of the rich and powerful. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are being used to silence journalists, tie them up in expensive and time consuming court cases, and cast a chill wind over any further attempt to expose corruption. 

The manipulation of facts had become perhaps the most damaging virus to infect our lives. The very concept of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ has poisoned public discourse.

The fact that so many people seem willing to believe only the news that suits their pre-existing opinions is one of the crucial issues of our day. Social media is destroying the notion of trust that we as journalists seek to achieve by providing verifiable information.

It is crazy but essential that we should now try to view as many sources as possible when forming an opinion. 

It may be comfortable to live in a bubble, indeed some would say it may be the only way to maintain sanity and escape the noise of far-fetched conspiracy theories.  But our job now is to get out there and challenge the misinformation generated by outfits like Advanced Impact Media Solutions. 

Commissioned by political and commercial interests the aptly named AIMS seeks to undermine evidence-based facts. They create bots which seek to generate controversy around genuine efforts to inform public opinion. 

We must be ever vigilant and seek news ways to create weapons of mass instruction, especially by exploring new forms of journalism which do not rely on vested commercial or political interests

As the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterrres has said “Press freedom represents the very lifeblood of human rights.”

As someone who has spent much of his career promoting journalism ethics, I can assure you there is no money in it – but there is at least the satisfaction that you are not misleading people.  

The MediaWise Trust, the NGO I have been running for the last 30 years, is about to close down – not because its work is done, but because we lack the funds and personnel to continue. 

At MediaWise we believe that the public have a right to receive accurate information, and an important part of our task as journalists is to let them know when they are being fed falsehoods.

I leave you with our guiding principle – that Press Freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public.

Keep that in mind as you fight the good fight in the coming year.

Best of luck.

Mike Jempson, Honorary Director, The MediaWise Trust

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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