Demanding Press Freedom Against All Odds
Journalism and freedom of expression are under attack around the world. With every passing day, record numbers of journalists are being intimidated, censored, imprisoned and killed. Whether you report from the United States or the Middle East, our jobs, and the very existence of the media institutions we represent, are at risk.
It’s been full year since blockading countries demanded that Al Jazeera be shuttered. Unfortunately, our network’s plight is only one example of the shameless and toxic media environment that now exists worldwide. It seems everywhere you look, governments are increasingly trying to discredit and check the power of the fourth estate.
Increasingly using fake news as an excuse, governments in Western nations are abandoning their previously stated mission of defending freedom of expression and a free press. This has created a power vacuum, allowing a number of repressive governments worldwide to capitalize on this opportunity to silence critics and weaken independent voices.
Having spent over 576 days behind bars after Egypt’s brutal crackdown on the press in 2013, not only do I feel the pain of those who are behind bars, who are kept from watching their kids grow up and their family members getting married like I was; even more, I feel the pain of their loved ones who are forced to watch on helplessly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is reporting that for the second year in a row, the number of reporters imprisoned for their work hit a record high of 262, while 46 others lost their lives. What’s more, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, over the past 11 years, approximately 90% of these murders have not been solved.
With statistics like these, broadcasting and publishing honest news is getting harder as journalists in quasi-democratic nations or downright police states face insurmountable challenges with almost no one to protect them if they release news that in any way presents a counter-narrative to local governments and authorities.
Few people may remember how radical, and difficult, it was for Al Jazeera when it first launched in 1996. Here was a brave experiment in a region not accustomed to a free and open press. And we were reminded of that fact each and every day as we were told by countries in the region that we couldn’t air this and shouldn’t show that. Instead, we followed what journalism teaches us all – bring all points of view to a story and let audiences decide for themselves.
Our news coverage broke the stranglehold of state propaganda in the Middle East, despite numerous calls to shut us down. To this day, we have refused to be silenced and maintain a level of reporting unattainable by the region’s state-controlled media outlets. But this has not been without great sacrifice.
Currently, our very own Mahmoud Hussein has been held in solitary confinement in an Egyptian prison for 555 days. An Egyptian national and a career journalist, Mahmoud was simply visiting his family on holiday. He has yet to be formally charged while his family and friends continue to desperately await his release. While Al Jazeera remains banned by the quartet countries, with heavy fines and possible imprisonment for those accessing our channel through VPN, other governments and interest groups seek to impose regulations to curtail press freedom. We know though that we are not alone in facing these challenges.
We at Al Jazeera stand as one with journalists around the globe to demand press freedom for all, using the #DemandPressFreedom to sustain the global momentum on these efforts. And in collaboration with press freedom organizations and other initiatives, we continue to demand the release of Reuters journalists in Myanmar as well as those incarcerated in Egypt, Mexico, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Although press freedom may not have the allies and support it once had, we cannot accept today’s trends as the new normal. We remain steadfast in our beliefs that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” For us, this is a human right. And we will not cede the global freedoms we have gained through tremendous sacrifice and abandon the people’s plea for truth, accuracy and empowerment.
As the shameless demand for Al Jazeera’s closure remains, we promise to prevail in telling you the unvarnished truth and to stand by journalists and media institutions that choose every day to courageously do the same.