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On December 10, 2021, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two journalists, Maria Ressa of the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace…. they are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
The Nobel Committee could not have better stated the indispensable linkage of free communication to democracy, and as a “prerequisite for lasting peace.” The choice of journalists for the prize comes at a time when world-over we see that attacks on journalists and the silencing of a free press go together with the stifling of democracy, sometimes by violent means. “Democracy dies in darkness,” as the slogan of one US newspaper states. Reliable information coming from ethical, professional reporting ruled by a commitment to the truth is essential to a democratic society.
Authoritarianism is on the rise, even in places previously regarded as democratic. In March 2021, the last remaining independent radio station was taken off the air in Hungary, where the Orban government has “eroded media pluralism and freedom of expression.” In Hong Kong in late June, the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper was closed and the owner and staff were arrested. In the United States, former President Trump called the mainstream press “enemies of the people,” and continues “the Big Lie” that he won the election, supported by a large network of far-right media that fuel an authoritarian movement in the US with disinformation. And Dezinformatsiya was the KGB department that produced propaganda; hence most Russians only know the version of what happens in Ukraine from Mr Putin, a former KGB agent.
In Africa, 33 journalists have been killed since 2016, while in Mexico 43 have been slain since late 2018. The Nobel prize winners have themselves experienced efforts to silence their work: Ms Ressa has been threatened with both rape and death, whole Mr Muratov has had six of his staff killed.
Key to much of the strategy of malevolent, autocratic actors is the use of social media to deploy one of their most potent weapons: disinformation, corrupting human communication and calling into doubt the very notion of truth.
Nonetheless, the efforts to silence freedom of expression are challenged by many voices.
First and foremost, despite the targeted violence and repression, editors and reporters in great numbers continue to do their work. Many of them see it as a vocation, to tell the truth in the face of powerful interests, political, economic, and even religious, that seek to obscure it.
There are various resourceful organizations, from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Reporters sans frontières, dedicated to defending press freedom. These groups greatly raise awareness about the role of a free press as well as advocate on behalf of imprisoned journalists and call out those who murder reporters.
One promising reimagining of the journalistic task is the concept of peace journalism, in which the journalist chooses carefully how and what to report in a way that maintains integrity but tells stories in a way that enables the public to reflect on alternatives to violence in situations of conflict.
In a 2019 address to the Foreign Press Association, Pope Francis paid tribute to fallen journalists, and unequivocally stated, “Freedom of the press and of expression is an important indicator of the state of a country’s health. Let’s not forget that one of the first things dictatorships do is remove freedom of the press or mask it, not leaving it free.”
Then there is us. Our patron, St. Oscar Romero, calls us all to be “microphones of God” in the face of lies and injustice. As a lay association, Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity reminds us that the laity, “Led by the light of the Gospel…must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens, they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility.” As Catholic communicators, do we engage our colleagues in the press? Do we offer them support in the face of efforts to impede their work? More, what is our relation to fellow Catholics working in non-church media?
In this issue we will attempt to look at all of this from our unique perspective as SIGNIS members: the struggle of freedom of expression and fact-based journalism against authoritarianism and disinformation; voices defending press freedom; the promise of peace journalism; and the role of Catholic communicators who believe “the truth will set you free.”
SIGNIS Media Editor
This article is available in SIGNIS Media 2022: Communication, Democracy and Peace.