Blog / May 3, 2018

On World Press Freedom Day: why a free press is important for freedom

In October last year, one of Malta’s most high profile journalists, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed by a car bombHer work, which exposed corruption, criminality, conflicts of interest and ethical failures in decision-making by politicians and their associates was, perhaps, reaching its zenith in the leak of the Panama papers which starkly exposed the web of money-laundering, proceeds of crime and exploitation linking politics, business and criminal gangs.

Of course, Ms Caruana Galizia is not the only journalist killed last year whilst pursuing the truth. The International Federation of Journalists estimated that 81 people died over the course of 2017. 2018 looks to be no less deadly, particularly after the horrific attacks on journalists in Kabul earlier this week.

Today, as we mark World Press Freedom Day, we mourn the loss – and celebrate the achievements – of them all, as well as standing in solidarity with the hundreds who find themselves behind bars simply for doing their jobs in countries with repressive freedom of speech laws.

Ms Caruana Galizia was making connections and following up leads that, no doubt, would have caused embarrassment for those who felt protected by layers of shady lawyers and tax advisors and sparked change in a global system weighted towards those with money and power.

Because she is believed to have been specifically targeted, and because her work brought her into direct conflict with those in power, she has become symbolic of a wider campaign to stop the use of violence, intimidation and murder as a tool to suppress the truth.

The Daphne Project, launched earlier this year, seeks to continue her work. Forty five journalists have come together to delve through the evidence Daphne was analysing, to pursue the threads she had picked up and to dig into those they believe have an interest in covering up the true perpetrators of her murder.

Earlier this month they began publishing their findings, which continued to expose truths as Daphne had been, revealing how the President of Azerbaijan and his family, widely criticised already for a lack of transparency, are presiding over a huge Dubai property empire, and scrutiny on two leading Maltese politicians around payments to their own offshore companies.

These are issues on which the Daphne Project has a firm ally in Global Witness. Over decades we have carried out forensic undercover investigations into how the corrupt and criminal steal, stash and spend their money.

This has taken us from dodgy deals to buy oil fields or mines in Africa to the use of anonymous companies, often incorporated in UK overseas territories, to channel profits from drugs, bribery or people trafficking into the high end property market in cities like London and New York. We campaign for transparency, accountability and change.

In many ways, the killings of journalists are the sharpest end of a wider issue around the closure of civic space which is making arguments like those championed by Global Witness and Daphne Caruana Galizia harder to pursue in many parts of the world.

The global civil society alliance, Civicus Monitor, estimates that just 3% of people on the planet live in countries with open civic space, whilst 8% live in countries with closed civic space, 36% in repressed civic space, 37% in obstructed civic space and 16% in narrowed civic space.

We see this most starkly in our work to track the murders of those campaigning to protect their land, forests and other natural resources from seizure by companies or governments against community interests – and often against the law. These environmental defenders face daily violent threats, intimidation, arrest and harassment. In 2017, 197 of them were killed, simply for wanting to stay in their homes and on their land.

Brazil – with 46 killings – was the deadliest country for defenders. It also remains one of Latin America’s most violent countries for journalists. In Colombia, where 32 defenders died, the most prominent victim was the radio and video journalist Efigenia Vasquez from the Kokonuko community, who was shot during a protest to “liberate Mother Earth”. And Mexico, where defender deaths rose five-fold between 2016 and 2017, is the most dangerous country for journalists after Syria and Iraq.

There is an inextricable link between repressing the freedom of the press and repressing the freedom for civil society to campaign for their rights. Both are about the closing down of inconvenient truths, the silencing of protesting voices and the dimming of the spotlight on the actions of the criminal, the powerful and the corporate. And both deserve the world’s attention.

Even in the UK, we must not rest on our laurels. Given the revelations by media coverage of the Paradise Papers led to wide-scale and much needed scrutiny of tax havens, we cannot afford to lose the strength of the UK press in exposing corruption across the world.

The Paradise Papers, leaked to the UK media to help expose the secrecy for sale in the UK overseas tax havens, which have been allowing powerful elites to profit at the expense of the rest. This revelation by the media has already encouraged transparency in the country – with this week’s vote on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill a first big step in tackling this problem.

Today, as we remember those who fight so hard for the press to be a vehicle for transparency and accountability, let’s not forget those who put their lives on the line campaigning for a more ethical, sustainable and equal world for their families and future generations. 

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