Why we should defend media freedom

I left school at age 16 to start my first business, Student magazine. Launched in 1968, Student sought to give young people a voice and challenge perceptions of youth culture – covering everything from pop culture and music to the Vietnam and Biafra wars. 

 

Those were extraordinary times, as a new generation of young activists and journalists confronted the powers that be, speaking up against the politics of war that had ravaged much of the world just a few decades earlier and that now again seemed bent on taking the world to the edge of global conflict at the height of the Cold War.

Work at Student was exhilarating. We were able to make our voices heard on any of the big issues of the time. We relished our editorial freedom, and we felt inspired by the men and women reporting so bravely and openly from the frontlines of the Vietnam War. There is no doubt that the work of journalists and photographers like Tim Page, Neil Sheehan, Dickey Chapelle, Kate Webb, Horst Faas, and David Halberstam, to name a few, did much to challenge the official narrative, shed a light on the brutality of war, shift public opinion and ultimately bring US involvement in Vietnam to an end. That, to me, was one of the finest hours of a free press dedicated to truth and openness.

Richard Branson protesting the Vietnam War

But I also knew that media freedom, the right of journalists to do their work without interference, obstruction or persecution, without the fear of violence or death, wasn’t something to take for granted - then as now. Much of the world continues to live in darkness, without access to the open exchange of thought, opinion and information that is a cornerstone of fair, just and democratic societies.

No question, defending and upholding media freedom is critical to ensure that those in power are held to account, that injustice and corruption are exposed and that the human rights of people everywhere are protected and respected. Without a free press speaking truth to power, societies cannot flourish. That’s bad news for all of us, but most of all for ordinary people looking to live their lives in dignity.

Some argue the world today is more democratic than it has ever been, certainly more so than back in the 1960s. But despite the broader trends, the last few years have also seen a gradual and disconcerting erosion of human rights and the rule of law in many parts of the world. As so often before, journalists find themselves on the frontlines of this struggle, and tragically, journalists often become its first casualties. It’s time we put an end to the hate, the abuse, the threats journalists are forced to confront every day.

Richard Branson interview

Today, political leaders, legislators, human rights defenders, business leaders, innovators and, of course, journalists are coming together in London for a Global Conference on Media Freedom. I welcome and applaud the initiative by the UK and Canadian governments to make the issue a global priority. I have some hope that the event will convey just how much is at stake. And I also hope that it sends a strong message to those who continue to restrict media freedom that their nations will never live up to their true potential as long as the right of people to speak their mind, to seek knowledge and to debate their views is not guaranteed.

What I’d like to see emerge is a global alliance for media freedom united in this common cause. There is no time to lose. Worldwide, at least 99 journalists were murdered in 2018, many more assaulted or imprisoned. Few of the killers were ever held responsible. We must do what we can to end the violence and restore accountability. For Shah, for Wendi, for Jamal, and for many of their peers this comes too late. But we owe it to their memory to make sure their colleagues are protected. Journalism is not a crime. Defend media freedom.

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