Rachel Pulfer is executive director of Journalists for Human Rights
The week celebrating World Press Freedom Day launched on a grim note on Monday: Ten journalists dead in Afghanistan on one day alone. This is equivalent to the total number of journalists lost in that country in all of 2017.
Such a tragedy represents the worst loss of life for media in Afghanistan since 2001, and it threatens to reverse one positive trend from the most recent 2017 Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters Without Borders, in which killings of journalists worldwide were actually down 18 per cent year over year.
There’s plenty of other grim news in this year’s Press Freedom Index (working title: The Hatred of Journalism).
Of particular concern: Journalists are now under attack not only in dictatorships, but also in democracies. This ranges from the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, stating that journalists are “not exempt from assassination” to U.S. President Donald Trump quoting Joseph Stalin’s maxim that the media is the enemy of the people.
Not so long ago, attacking the press was also the narrative of choice among the ruling class in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country.
In August, 2015, just as Journalists for Human Rights – the organization I run – was preparing to launch a major three-year media development intervention in South Sudan, the President called for his people to shoot journalists for reporting “against the state.”
One day later, South Sudanese journalist Peter Moi was shot in the back and killed.
The President recanted his statement, but the damage was done. That year, seven journalists died on the job in South Sudan, a number on trend with Afghanistan’s nine dead in 2017.
Fast forward to April, 2018, and a cramped conference room in Juba, the South Sudanese capital.
In this room, just last week, South Sudanese police officials, a Supreme Court judge, top ministry of information officials and the South Sudan Media Authority (a body better known for shutting down media or kicking them out of the country than for championing their interests) all committed on the record to uphold the law and work together to improve the relationship between journalists and authorities in South Sudan.
The goal: to ensure journalists can work in peace in the world’s newest country.
This all happened at a forum on media law convened by Journalists for Human Rights, supported by the Government of Canada, working in partnership with the Canadian embassy in Juba and the Association of Media Women in South Sudan. The forum was streamed online and widely covered.
Crucially, the South Sudan Media Authority has also been walking this talk in the past four months. When journalists are summoned by authorities angry about some aspect of coverage, Media Authority officials accompany them, to mediate and resolve disputes peacefully. Not a single journalist has been killed this year in the line of duty. (An expatriate journalist was roughed up at a protest in February, an action that was broadly and publicly condemned by the Media Authority and across the society.)
While this is still South Sudan, where events can change dramatically in a very short period of time, the country also inched up a spot on the Press Freedom Index this year. This situation represents a significant shift for a place that is better known for its poor human-rights record and abuse of journalists than its commitment to a free media. And in a tragic week when another failing conflict state experienced the loss of so many journalists, it represents a glimmer of light.
A seemingly impossible situation for media does not always have to be that way. With guts, determination and commitment to collective action, positive change on media freedom is possible.
Even in a place such as South Sudan.