Can a Free Press Survive Fake News?

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While some scream “Fake News!” others work tirelessly to speak truth to power, as a free press is a vital aspect of a healthy democracy. But how can we tell the difference? How do we know if we live in a society with a free press? Who even counts as a journalist or media outlet in this age of social media and digital platforms? And how can we trust what journalists are telling us?

These are all difficult and important questions to answer, and never more so than today, on World Press Freedom Day. The United Nations designates May 3 as a day to celebrate four fundamental pillars of a free press:

  1. Share key principles of press freedom

  2. Defend the media from attacks on their independence

  3. Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty

  4. Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world

And as part of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (SDGs), the countries of the world have agreed to SDG 16, which seeks to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms as part of efforts to promote peace, justice, and strong institutions. Freedom of the press is a vital element of this. And assessing the state of press freedom requires agreed upon definitions, standards, and methodologies to monitor and evaluate those standards and allow comparative analysis between countries and regions. In order to trust news and media outlets, we all need to agree on what is evidence or fact versus what counts as opinion, and develop standards to differentiate between the two. And not-for-profit, civil society organizations can help as “watchdogs” of what is happening in countries around the world to continue to strengthen freedom of expression and a free press.

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In that regard, a collection of civil society watchdog organizations throughout the Americas has launched an exciting initiative called Voces del Sur (”Voices of the South”). This network of watchdogs has developed regional standards for the monitoring of press freedom and freedom of expression. For the first time, organizations from eight countries are reporting on violations according to the same criteria and disseminating alerts via a common platform, vocesdelsurunidas.org. Organizations from new countries continue to join the initiative. This has already allowed for new forms of analysis and reporting. Alerts can be sorted by type, location, category of victim, and aggressor and tracked across time. It has enhanced regional advocacy efforts, as hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations draw on this information to contextualize information from a given country or position it as part of a broader trend.  

Even more exciting, as a collective the Voces del Sur network recently presented a shadow report to the United Nations on SDG 16, on steps countries need to take to ensure access to information and freedom of the press. This shadow report will inform a UN review of member states’ compliance with their SDG commitments and subsequent recommendations to national.

PADF is proud to support the Voces del Sur network and efforts to promote press freedom throughout the hemisphere as part of our commitment to democracy and human rights and our work to strengthen civil society and institutions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. We believe that a free press is just as important as branches of government and separation of powers in ensuring that individuals and institutions are held accountable and that the rights of vulnerable individuals and communities are protected. As author and intellectual Jonathan Rauch has said, “there is a reason that the first amendment [of the U.S. Constitution] is first.” On today, World Press Freedom Day, it is important to keep that in mind and stand up for a free press and the rights and security of journalists throughout the region and around the world.