Monday, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, a good time to reflect on the role of journalism in democracies and in explaining the world to Canadians.
For the past year or so, we have been rightly focused on COVID-19, one of the biggest stories in decades – one that also affects each of us personally. On top of that, the upending of political norms in the United States means our attention has moved away from global concerns.
May 3 has been designated by UNESCO as a reminder to respect an independent press and allow it to do its work, which is a struggle in many countries. Journalists around the world continue to face arrest, expulsion or death for doing their jobs. In the United States, reporters have been charged or arrested for covering protests. In China, BBC journalist John Sudworth moved with his family to Taiwan after being under surveillance and facing obstruction, intimidation and threats of legal action for his coverage of the persecution of the country’s Uyghur minority.
Worldwide, journalists have lost their lives. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 32 journalists were killed on the job in 2020.
One slain journalist was Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta, who was killed in 2017 when a bomb, placed under the driver’s seat of her car, was detonated. Her murder trial was covered by The Globe and Mail’s Rome correspondent, Eric Reguly, who pointed out that her son sat shocked in the court, alongside family members, by “the nonchalant brutality of the plot – the hit was just another job.”
She had been writing a hard-hitting blog, “Running Commentary,” which implicated several Maltese politicians in the Panama Papers offshore finance industry scandal.
Journalism is so important, especially in countries ruled by secretive, dictatorial regimes. You probably recall the work done by The Globe’s China correspondent, Nathan VanderKlippe, who was not only at the forefront of COVID-19 coverage but has also steadfastly reported on the detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and their secret so-called “trials.” Like the BBC’s correspondent, Nathan has bravely covered human-rights abuses committed against the Uyghur people, revealing how Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region have been moved to factories far from home to sever their ties to the language and culture of the region.
As the first paragraph of his exclusive said, “Chinese authorities have loaded large numbers of Uyghur workers onto trains bound for factories thousands of kilometres away as part of a plan to assimilate Muslim minorities into mainstream Chinese culture and thin their populations in Xinjiang, the northwestern region that has been their home for centuries, an internally circulated research document shows.”
It’s important to understand how difficult it was to bring that story to light in a country where journalists are closely monitored. Nathan described how authorities denied that such factories and industrial parks exist, was refused entry to one, but went anyway.
“The 100-hectare park, which manufactures wigs for export around the world, has been kept off-limits to foreign journalists, and China has denied the use of forced labour. But The Globe recently reached its entrance and photographed its buildings from ground level, providing a first-hand glimpse of a place where a prison-like facility, police station, residential facilities surrounded by electric fencing and manufacturing operations sit alongside a single road that cuts through a sprawling industrial area.”
Mark MacKinnon, The Globe’s senior international correspondent and a former Moscow bureau chief, has continued to report on tensions between Russia and Ukraine and countries such as Belarus, where a couple hung a Canadian flag in the window of their apartment in the capital, Minsk, knowing it would draw the attention of police. The man was jailed for 15 days for disobeying a police request to take the flag down.
Mark also wrote an exclusive on efforts by younger people in Belarus and their struggles for democracy against the Russian-backed government of Alexander Lukashenko.
Without coverage of these grassroots democratic efforts, you would never know there was unrest inside these single-party states.
And in Africa, correspondent Geoffrey York worked with an Ethiopian journalist covering a propaganda war that involves fake tweets. It’s a country caught up in a conflict we might not know much about because of internet blackouts and threats against journalists, but as Geoff writes: “The war has killed thousands of people, forced as many as two million people to flee their homes and destroyed much of the region’s health care system and other basic services. Countless women have been violently attacked and sexually assaulted. But the severe damage and the rising death toll have often been obscured by a fog of falsehoods and duelling propaganda claims.”
As these struggles for democracy are happening around the world, it is important for Canadians to know. It is also important to understand what is happening with COVID-19 around the world – how the new variants that originated in India and Brazil affect us, but also how they affect people in those countries. One thing COVID-19 has taught us is that the world is increasingly interconnected.
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