By Christophe Deloire, the Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders - which was awarded the 2005 Sakharov Prize
We are entering a new era - one in which we will need courage. Defenders of liberty and proper journalists will be able to continue their struggle, but if they fight on alone they will be defeated hands down. They need the wholehearted support of the people, because otherwise the forces of manipulation, obscurantism and submission will prevail. Lethal ideologies, propaganda apparatuses and spin doctors are striving to debase public debate as we have known it since the Enlightenment. Will we let them?
How can 'proper' journalism, in its pursuit of what is real in all its diversity, survive in a world saturated with information which is doctored, manipulated and deliberately slanted by the forces of authority, money and intolerance? Humanity and societies need 'trusted third parties' to help them make collective and individual choices based on 'the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth', as the UNESCO Constitution puts it.
How do we defend the pluralism of reporting and investigative journalism when the credibility of journalists has, rightly or wrongly, been called into question? By fervently defending journalists' freedom and independence, because these two things are fundamental to the role we expect journalists to perform, namely that of reporting their findings in a free and independent manner. Sadly, we have entered a new era in which the powers-that-be have developed new ways of controlling information and, more generally, the way people think.
Thanks to technology, state, political, economic and religious authorities can put their message across directly anywhere in the world, with no filter, no differentiation. Anything goes: a barbaric propaganda film disguised as a documentary; edited reality dressed up as a decryption of the real truth; the creation or manipulation of desire posing as journalistic investigation. Technology creates areas of freedom, but not everyone can be trusted to use that freedom scrupulously.
It is increasingly difficult for the citizens of any country to distinguish between communication sponsored or dictated by interest groups and information obtained independently and honestly, using methods as close as possible to the journalistic ideal. Pluralism cannot be reduced to a choice between two propagandas, two communications strategies, two 'public relations' machines. We can all see that independent newsgathering everywhere is struggling to develop or even survive. Hence the urgent need for action.
We have entered an era of information wars. Totalitarian regimes used to put their peoples in a glass prison, but at least they had no hold over the rest of the world. Nowadays, it is not only notorious dictatorships but managed democracies as well which are creating their own tame media in an effort to get their 'message' across throughout the world. In dictatorships and democracies alike, spin doctors - who are increasingly numerous and increasingly powerful - feed the media monsters.
In some places it is algorithms which are the new invisible prison bars, whilst in others dank cells and guards who beat up prisoners are still the order of the day. Violence against journalists is still an everyday occurrence. More than 150 reporters remain in prison, a number which doubles if we count bloggers as well. According to the records kept by Reporters Without Borders, 720 journalists have been killed worldwide in the last 10 years. They are seen as inconvenient witnesses to be disposed of, trouble makers who refuse to toe the party line.
Then there is ideology - a terrifying phenomenon inimical to freedom of conscience. When wielded with the aim of imposing a way of thinking on others, the concept of blasphemy or sacrilege poses a huge threat to freedom of speech and of information. Evidence for this is provided not only by the fanatics who, in the name of condemning blasphemy, showed up at the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices in Paris in January 2015; in many countries, cartoons and 'established truths' are being censored in the name of religion or 'traditional values'.
The importance of not offending believers is often cited as a pretext for political censorship, or for keeping silent about economic, social or cultural realities. Between 1999 and 2010, we countered the diplomatic offensive waged by religious regimes wishing to impose the idea of 'defamation of religions'. No fewer than 15 resolutions have been tabled in the UN in the name of 'religious sensibilities'. But if one religion were to demand that everyone honour its sacred tenets, there would be no reason not to demand the same for other schools of thought - political, philosophical, or economic, even. What price freedom of thought then?
By Michal Janczuk, Member of the Board of the 2004 Sakharov Prize laureate Belarusian Association of Journalists