The free press matters more than ever, and good journalism serves as a mirror in which we can reflect on the good, the bad, and the true. That was the message delivered by US President Joe Biden at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which honours distinguished journalists from print and broadcast media for their coverage of the White House.
World Press Freedom Day which is held annually highlights issues around the safety and protection of journalists in the face of attacks against their independence and their personal safety. This is a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It’s also a day of reflection among media professionals on standards and ethics while remembering those fallen in the pursuit of truth.
The Dinner was an opportunity to not only make fun of those in power but to affirm the role of the free press in democracy.
“At home, a poison is running through our democracy of all – all of this taking place with disinformation massively on the rise, where the truth is buried by lies and the lies live on as truth. What’s clear – and I mean this from the bottom of my heart – that you, the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century. (Applause.) No, I really mean it,” says Biden.
More than 20 journalists and media workers have been killed since the beginning of the war in Ukraine – one of the most recent examples of the dangers associated with reporting from conflict zones where the rules of war are often inexcusably blurred by the fog of war.
Biden adds, “We honour journalists killed, missing, imprisoned, detained, and tortured; covering war, exposing corruption, and holding leaders accountable. We honour members of the press, both national and local, covering a once-in-a-century pandemic where we lost a million Americans, a generation reckoning on race, and the existential threat of climate change. The free press is not the enemy of the people – far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth.”
Comedian Trevor Noah – who often uses his comedy and commentary to challenge those in power has called the fourth estate a bastion of free democracies.
“If you ever begin to doubt your responsibilities, if you ever begin to doubt how meaningful it is, look no further than what’s happening in Ukraine. Journalists are risking and even losing their lives to show the world what’s really happening. You realise how amazing it is in America, you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth even if it makes people in power uncomfortable. Even when it makes your viewers or your readers uncomfortable. Do you understand how amazing that is? I stood here tonight and I made fun of the President of the United States and I’m going to be fine,” expresses Noah.
He also highlighted restrictions imposed on journalists working in Russia who face up to 15 years’ imprisonment if they report on details of the war in Ukraine that run counter to the government’s narrative of a ‘special military operation’.
”Ask yourself this question – if Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods and their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing, if they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories or to ask any questions – if they had basically what you have, would they be using it in the same way that you do? Ask yourself that question everyday because you have one of the most important roles in the world”, adds Noah.
UNESCO says World Press Freedom Day serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom and as a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world. Publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. Recently, Trevor Noah emphasized in Washington what a blessing it actually is for journalists to enjoy the right to seek the truth and speak the truth even if it makes people in power uncomfortable.