Free Press, Fair Elections and Democracy.

It’s World Press Freedom Day and World Press Freedom Canada has presented this year’s Press Freedom Award winners at the annual luncheon in Ottawa.

The theme this year is: Free Press, Fair Elections and Democracy.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of the press. That’s because Press Freedom ensures citizens can be informed, empowered, and able to participate in the democratic process.

But are they informed?

Today Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released the latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index. Its evaluation of 180 countries has noted a disturbing trend: of the five indicators that are used to compile the ranking, the political indicator has dropped the most. It shows press freedom around the world is being threatened by political authorities -- the very people who should be its guarantors. RSF editorial director, Anne Bocande, notes, “…States and other political forces are playing a decreasing role in protecting press freedom. This disempowerment sometimes goes hand in hand with more hostile actions that undermine the role of journalists, or even instrumentalize the media through campaigns of harassment or disinformation.

Not coincidentally, global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year. Geopolitical turmoil is making its mark. As press freedom goes, so goes democracy.

2024 is a pivotal year for Democracy.

More than half of the world’s population heads to the polls in 64 countries plus the European Union. But the Secretary General for Reporters Without Borders has warned the World Press Freedom Index is showing enormous volatility; the instability a result of fewer working journalists and a growing animosity towards them -- and the consequence of massive disinformation and propaganda campaigns, which are now fuelled by Artificial Intelligence.

According to RSF, deepfakes now occupy a leading position in influencing the course of elections. One of the first documented cases of this was an audio deepfake of the Slovakian journalist, Monika Todova, during the presidential elections in April that was designed to influence the outcome of the election. Slovak nationalist-left government candidate Peter Pellegrini won the country's presidential election, further tightening the grip of pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose reforms have weakened the rule of law and press freedom.

AI has given bad actors an unprecedented ability to tamper with content that is being used to undermine those who embody responsible journalism -- and it weakens journalism itself. Weakened journalism denies citizens the oversight function that keeps governments accountable.

Nobody knows that better than the US Guardian columnist, Margaret Sullivan, this year’s keynote speaker for World Press Freedom Canada’s annual awards luncheon.

As Sullivan noted in her book, Ghosting the News, until recently in Brampton Ontario, there was no local radio station, no local TV station, no daily newspaper, and no serious online news outlets. This is known as news poverty or a news desert.

Our 2022 Press Freedom Award winner, Fatima Syed, worked for a tiny non-profit online magazine in Toronto and went into this community of immigrants and essential workers because the COVID-19 test positivity rate was more than double that of the rest of the province. Through her enterprise reporting in this news desert, she discovered the health system had failed the people who needed help the most. Syed’s journalism was picked up by the major dailies and, in short order, the province sent an abundance of resources to remedy the wrongs.

They say all politics is local; well, all news is local too.

To quote from Margaret’s book, “the core of investigative work is something of public importance that someone doesn’t want you to know.”

A free press is essential for the functioning of democracy by informing the public, serving as a watchdog, facilitating public discourse, giving voice to minorities, and seeking transparency and accountability wherever it is needed.

But today there are news deserts from one end of the country to the other.

Within the last year the CBC announced 600 job cuts. Metroland Media Group, one of country’s largest news publishers, filed for bankruptcy protection. 650 people were laid off and its weekly community newspapers were shuttered across Ontario. CTV cut roughly 100 jobs and sold 45 regional radio stations. TVA Group cut 547 jobs – 31% of its workforce. Global news was gutted during the pandemic.

This is not good for democracy.

Those who don’t want to be held to account obfuscate the truth and pollute our information ecosystem with false promises and false flags.

As authoritarianism stakes its ground with frightening intensity, we must remind people that journalists are our watchdogs, not our lapdogs.

Support them and you support a free press and democracy.

We wish our European friends fair elections next month for European Parliament.

And… we wait with bated breath for November.

Image courtesy of: Fred Chartrand