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The nature and importance of a free press

World Press Freedom Day has come and gone. Other issues now clamor for attention. For journalists who are no longer with us, such as those killed in the Maguindanao massacre, there is only silence. This ought not be so. A free press is important yet tenuous, especially in an election year. So it is fitting that we honor the critical role of the press in sustaining democracy, freedom and prosperity. We also pay tribute to those who have lost their lives for telling the world a story.

Journalism is a unique vocation. Simply putting ink to paper can change a society more than war, more than fear, and more than intimidation.

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True journalism means bravery, ethics and dedication.

The bravery is obvious—journalists defy dangers and threats to seek the story all over the world. They go into war zones, criticize authoritarian regimes, and expose malfeasance by those in power. They expose the wrongdoing of companies that pollute the environment and corrupt public institutions. They give a voice to those without political or economic power. Journalists do this because they have the conviction to expose the truth.

Being a real journalist involves seeking, and telling, the truth. It is not fabricating stories to make money or exaggerating headlines to sell a paper. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Ethical journalism means dedication to accuracy, fact-checking and credible sources.

Journalism also involves the burning desire to know more, rather than repeating tired old questions. It is the dedication to follow the human spirit of inquiry that urges us to ask “why” and to bring the answers to the public square, clearly and fully.

The 2016 election year in both the United States and the Philippines reminds us that debate on public issues should be robust and uninhibited. According to a famous US Supreme Court case, debates “may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasant attacks on government and public officials,” but they must be given room to flourish.

More than 60 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Sadly, today, much of the world is still subject to censorship of one kind or another.

Freedom of the press is freedom from fear, freedom from intimidation and freedom from violence, for the journalist and for the citizen. It means the right to tell a story, share an opinion and give voice to ideas, no matter how unpopular.

We’ve seen positive developments with regards to press freedom in the Philippines over the last few years: Data from Karapatan, a human rights NGO, indicate that extrajudicial killings (EJKs), including of journalists, have declined from over 200 per year in the late 2000s to around 50-100 per year recently. The Commission on Human Rights corroborates this trend. But even one EJK is too many. While these statistics show a significant decline in the number of EJKs, they also show that a serious problem remains.

In the past several years, the Philippine government has taken some important steps to prevent violence or intimidation against journalists and those who advocate for human rights. For example, cooperation between prosecutors and police has deepened in pursuing EJK-related cases. As a result, prosecutors can take a proactive approach early in the investigation stage to ensure a higher conviction rate. Such efforts resulted in convictions against the killers of radio broadcaster Rolando Ureta, radio commentator Rowell Endrinal, photojournalist Alberto Orsolino and broadcaster Gerardo Ortega.

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These successes cannot hide the fact that there is much more work to be done. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines the third most dangerous country for journalists, surpassed only by Iraq and Syria. The Philippines also ranks third on the Impunity Index, which tracks bringing killers of media practitioners to justice. More than five years after the Maguindanao massacre, the families of the 32 journalists that were murdered in the worst election-related violence in Philippine history have yet to see justice. Witnesses to the massacre have been subject to intimidation and abuse, and have even been killed.

The United States continues to encourage the government of the Philippines to do more to train police in effective investigation methods and to train prosecutors to work more effectively with the police to build more robust legal cases. Since January 2014, the US Department of Justice has provided three human rights courses and seven ethics courses to 291 members of the Philippine law enforcement community. All of these training courses included a human rights component that included the protection of journalists.

It is important to also note that it is not just governments that threaten press freedom; criminal gangs, terrorists and political factions can all seek to silence or manipulate the media. No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or forced to disappear, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed anywhere.

The government and the media have a symbiotic and, at times, antagonistic, relationship. Each depends on the other for success. Democratic government on its part is responsible for securing freedom and independence of the press by protecting journalists, while the media must independently report the truth and provide citizens with information that enables them to carry out their civic duties, participate in a democracy, and hold their governments accountable.

Our two nations recognize this important link. We must work to further freedom of speech and safeguard democracy; we must do this by protecting our journalists.

Philip Goldberg is the US ambassador to the Philippines.

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TAGS: column, free press, Philip Goldberg, world press freedom day
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