UNAGP and GPA's "Human Rights and Press Freedom" Panel, Why The Truth Must Come Out

Maria Johansson, for GPA -- What is freedom of speech? In much of the world it means being able to speak your mind, to peacefully protest against government decisions and to report the truth. In other parts of the world, this right is not as well respected.

December is Human Rights Month, with December 10 recognized globally as Human Rights Day. The theme for this year has been “Human Rights 365,” championing the need for human rights every day of the year.

Freedom of speech, one of the thirty tenets outlined in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, developed and signed under the watchful eye of Eleanor Roosevelt, was the focus of a panel discussion at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia on Human Rights Day.

Present at the event was a panel of several experts, moderated by GPA’s Peter Chawaga. The panel’s keynote speaker was Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ works globally to help journalists in need and to protect their well being when their work puts them at risk of abuse or even death.

CPJ also collects statistics on violations of press freedom. In the year of 2014, it found that 52 reporters were killed because they were trying to expose a story that somebody did not want them to. That puts the total number of journalists killed since 1992, when CPJ started keeping statistics, at 1,092. In addition to that, 211 journalists are currently in jail, 404 journalists have been forced into exile since 2009 and a number of journalists are missing.

This year has seen a record number of journalists killed because of their work, largely due to the crisis in Syria, which Radsch described as an “information black hole” and the deadliest country for journalists. Unfortunately, in many of these cases the killers goes free and Radsch pointed out that the few cases where killers have been convicted were the result of immense international and local pressure from organizations like CPJ.

“Whatever you do, don’t remain silent,” she implored.

While Radsch spoke extensively about the dangers for journalists in war zones and under oppressive regimes, she also explained how the U.S. is not completely innocent of violating press freedoms. It is becoming increasingly common for the domestic government to pressure American journalists to reveal sources and it is now not unheard of for journalists to have their phone records hacked. This behavior, Radsch said, will significantly weaken the authority that the U.S. has to reprimand those countries who routinely violate press freedom.

While the argument could certainly be made that some of these cases are a question of national security, any influence on the press under threat-like conditions could be construed as an attempt by the government to control what journalists are permitted to report on.

“Journalists are providers of information and ideas and are engines of change,” Radsch said, asking the audience how participation in society would be possible without the men and women who put their lives on the front lines to report the truth every day.

Michael Matza, staff writer and former foreign correspondent at The Philadelphia Inquirer, related to Radsch’s stories and fears. Matza pointed out that secondhand reporting is not enough. In order to know the truth about something, someone has to be there physically, in the middle of the action, potentially risking their lives. For the average person in such an environment, he said, “the stakes are high. For journalists they are very, very high.”

Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, spoke about the use of comedy to convey a political message. She also discussed how the right to freedom of religion and the rights of cartoonists often clash, such as depictions of the Prophet Muhammad's face, an activity that is actively discouraged by most Muslims and completely forbidden by some.

Wilkinson also highlighted something that Michael Matza touched upon, the calling that motivated them to become journalists.

The panelists agreed that being a journalist was not the path to riches, but rather it was a calling to find the truth and serve it to the world. Wilkinson showed a cartoon drawn by Ali Ferzat, a well-known Syrian cartoonist whose irreverent cartoons led to his kidnapping and the crushing of his hands. He survived to draw a cartoon of himself showing the people who had tried to intimidate him that he would not be deterred.

Without the reporters that report firsthand, put themselves and their lives on the front line and endure all types of hardships, how would we participate in the world? Have a look at CPJ’s website and find out how you can help support these brave people.

Image courtesy of UNAGP.