(This article is co-published with UNESCO.)

This year marks both the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, this is a doubly fitting year to be fighting to maintain freedom of expression where it exists, to re-establish freedom of expression where it has been suppressed, and to support freedom of expression across the world. Sadly, 2023 is also a year in which it has become more necessary and important than ever to carry on this fight.

Freedom of expression is protected in international law, because, without it, democracy and the rule of law wither away. A free and uncensored press is a vital aspect of this freedom: independent media hold governments to account, facilitate the enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms, and shed light on matters of public interest. And different parts of the media also monitor each other.

The media have rightly been described as the watchdogs of democracy, because journalists often highlight democratic deficits and demand accountability from elected and unelected officials. This is the fourth estate.

The right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information, online and offline, is also an enabling right without which most other fundamental human rights cannot be properly enjoyed. Exercising these interdependent freedoms, without fear or unlawful interference, is part of the bedrock of a modern democratic and civilized society.

States that strive for balanced social progress and democratic stability should not just protect the right to freedom of expression within their laws and constitution; wider and sustained action is required to ensure that freedom of expression is effectively guaranteed through independent and impartial justice systems. That means any interference with freedom of expression must have a legal basis, meet the standards of strict necessity and proportionality to the danger which the restrictions address, and be subject to independent review.

That is the conceptual framework.

Today’s reality is that civil liberties continue to decline. And this is a global problem. Recent data from Freedom House show that infringement on free expression is one of biggest drivers of the democratic recession being experienced across the world. Among the many rights under attack worldwide during the past 17 consecutive years, freedom of expression — and, in particular, media freedom — appears to have declined more than any other right.

The explanation for this is simple: media freedom poses a genuine threat to corrupt and undemocratic regimes, and accordingly, many governments adopt measures which stifle press freedom and encourage censorship. According to UNESCO, more journalists today are killed outside war zones than inside them, with a mere one in ten such murders resulting in prosecution.

Many journalists today operate in fear of reprisals, facing arbitrary deprivations of their liberty or physical attacks – or even murder — simply for doing their jobs. Legitimate reporting by journalists, often in the public interest, is routinely undermined, with many facing intimidation and harassment through vexatious legal action by State and other powerful actors. Further, regulatory and administrative processes are being developed by States to target independent media in the form of economic and commercial regulations. Even in some democracies, journalists and media workers receive inadequate protection from intimidation and violence.

Add to this the increased challenges we face in the digital world. The internet is one of the principal means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom of expression today. Many governments have introduced repressive laws to the online sphere and adopted invasive technologies to monitor digital communication. They have also sought to control the internet, through shutting it down or slowing it down, or simply removing content inconvenient to the government of the day. All the while, journalists are targeted and harassed online with impunity.

In 2019, the Media Freedom Coalition was established as an international partnership of governments working together to advocate for media freedom and for the safety of journalists, pledging also to hold accountable individuals and governments that harm journalists for doing their jobs. The High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, was convened by the Coalition co-chairs to act as the Coalition’s independent legal advisory body. A Consultative Network was also created, constituted of civil society and media organizations. UNESCO is an official observer to the Coalition and administers its Global Media Defence Fund.

The Coalition is now more than 50 States strong. The High Level Panel has been publishing written advice to the Coalition, and the Coalition’s Member States have started to give effect to the High Level Panel’s recommendations by: (i) introducing and issuing emergency visas for journalists at risk; (ii) protecting their own journalists abroad through strengthening diplomatic support; (iii) working on a feasibility study for an international task force that can investigate violence and other abuses against journalists; and (iv) imposing targeted financial and travel sanctions against those who persecute the press.

The fact that some of the Coalition States are matching their words with action must be the cause for some cautious optimism. But much more needs to be done.

For the High Level Panel, that means continuing to provide legal advice to the Coalition States, reviewing draft legislation impacting on media freedom, accepting invitations by international courts to submit opinions, and making legal interventions in cases of wider public interest. It also means tackling the novel legal issues raised by the spread of disinformation, by the practice of arbitrary detention of journalists in state-to-state relations, and by the misuse of commercial spyware against journalists.

The Coalition offers an interesting model for international co-operation in a key area for democracies. Its tri-partite structure – the States, the independent lawyers and jurists, the civil society organizations – offers checks and balances and the prospect of accountability.

But as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, we must reflect on this: if the media are silenced and journalists are muzzled, a key pillar of a functioning democracy is crushed. It means that an institution which is vital to a free society, which seeks to ensure accountability, to highlight injustices, to inform the public about matters in their interest, and to serve as a conduit between the people and their representatives, is neutralized. The loss of a free, independent media is essentially the loss of democracy.

IMAGE: Journalists and members of Guatemalan civil society carry a banner reading “Without Journalism There is No Democracy” during a demonstration against the threat to freedom of expression and the criminal prosecution of communicators, outside court in Guatemala City on March 4, 2023. The United States expressed concern on March 2 over Guatemala’s decision to bring legal action against nine journalists from an investigative newspaper, saying the move undermined free speech, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) accused Guatemalan authorities of trying to “intimidate and harass” journalists at the publication who were investigating government corruption. The journalists from the newspaper El Periodico include its founder Jose Ruben Zamora, who had already spent eight months in pre-trial detention on accusations of money laundering and blackmail. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)