With China, Russia and Cuba leveraging Twitter to rally support of President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela, and Iran-linked social media accounts spreading anti-Saudi sentiments while anti-Rohingya propaganda online fuels violence and displacement in Myanmar, the Internet is the new battleground for authoritarian governments. As fake news saturates the digital sphere, online sources of information have become less reliable, the public has grown more susceptible to propaganda, and democracy is increasingly in danger. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that journalists around the globe are well trained and invest in freedom of the press, which is in the best international security and foreign policy interests of all nations to ensure global prosperity.
The modern-day arsenal of trolls, bots and automated tweets have propelled us into an era of disinformation. As the Internet grows less free, journalism oversight becomes increasingly challenged. A free press is a strong indicator of a healthy democratic society. The media, when given the freedom to hold government accountable, serves as a critical check-and-balance system — without this freedom, democracies can dissolve.
Today (May 3rd) marks another World Press Freedom Day, an important moment to reflect on the state of press freedom around the world, the ability of journalists to uphold editorial principles and fulfill their democratic duties, and also remember the journalists who have lost their lives in the pursuit of the truth.
Despite recent challenges to press freedom, promoting strong journalistic integrity still has intrinsic value to the American people and our country. The U.S. has long been recognized as a champion for democracy and freedom, and has been considered the standard-bearer for a free press. Let us not forget that freedom of the press is inscribed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the world’s longest surviving written charter of government that serves as the model for democratic governance today. This stems from our country’s history as a stable, democratic state and reputation as the leader of the free world.
It is vital that the U.S. demonstrates its commitment to press freedom. Nonpartisan institutions like Meridian International Center are leading the charge with initiatives that uphold long-standing democratic traditions and core U.S. values like freedom of the press. For the last 60 years, Meridian has partnered with the U.S. Government and worked across administrations and party lines to design and implement capacity-building programs that advance transparency, open dialogue, and neutral forums for collaboration. Through journalism training and reporting tours, Meridian leverages America’s world-class journalism to connect our nation’s finest reporters and champions of free press with emerging and renowned journalists in countries around the world, with the aim of providing a network along with first-hand experience in the rights and responsibilities of the free press. In 2018 alone, Meridian engaged with more than 400 journalists on 73 exchange and training programs.
The effort to increase transparency and mutual understanding through two-way exchange goes beyond U.S. and international journalists. Meridian occupies an important space, especially in Washington, D.C., by providing a neutral platform for open, productive discussion between government and civil society, which includes members of the press. The American people, through their elected representatives, continues to support this work, which remains a pillar of U.S. engagement with the world.
While citizens across the globe are realizing the urgency for press freedom, there is still much work to be done. A challenge of today’s media business model is that bad news sells – If it bleeds it leads, a well-known journalism aphorism and cautionary tale that, unfortunately, is trending across today’s headlines. What if we flipped the script, changed the narrative so today’s news agenda is less focused on sensationalized stories and ‘he said, she said’ narratives but rather investigating systemic global issues and enlightening the public to potential solutions? To do so, we need to support journalists and preserve journalistic integrity and independence. Capacity-building programs like Meridian’s that connect journalists around the world with their U.S. counterparts might move the needle on bringing the truth and progress back to the fore.
Every day, Meridian welcomes dozens of distinguished international leaders through our doors, many of whom have been recognized for their public service contributions and pivotal work in health and science, women’s empowerment, agricultural production and education, among many other fields of expertise. These stories of progress, innovation and excellence are not often told – but they should be. We have surrendered the battlefields of ideas and collaboration to trade disputes and threat of imminent war, of which the 24/7 news cycle never fails to remind us. There is more good in the world today, but without a free press how can the public be enlightened to these positive truths making the world a more secure, prosperous place?
Journalism is a powerful platform. We are in an era of disinformation, misinformation and re-emerging propaganda. When reporters and their reportage are encouraged and incentivized to approach storytelling with truth and transparency, journalism can truly fill its role as the Fourth Estate and catalyze its impact by serving as a tool of diplomacy, a vehicle for democracy, and the ultimate arbiter of freedom around the world.
Megan Devlin is Director of Communications at Meridian International Center. She is an alum of Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications where she graduated as the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of The Ithacan.