May 3rd marks World Press Freedom Day. While we pause to honor those journalists who have been killed or imprisoned, it is important to realize the growing role media play in global politics and the changes that are redefining what it means to be a journalist.
According to the International Press Institute, 133 journalists were killed in 2012, the deadliest year on record. This was 53 more than the preceding year. The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported another 232 reporters or media workers were imprisoned. These statistics do not reflect the even greater numbers of bloggers and citizen journalists who risked their lives shedding light in closed societies.
In the developed world, where minute-by-minute we receive a glut of information, we often take media for granted and don't fully appreciate why people would stand in front of a tank or risk their lives for the right to speak. But for authoritarian rulers everywhere, free media pose a threat they can never ignore. Ever since at least 1972, when the Washington Post's exposure of the Watergate break-in led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, media have been at the center of almost all the regime changes that have taken place in the world.
The so-called "Facebook Revolutions" of the Arab Spring have awakened pundits and policymakers to the power of media in recent movements for social change. It is not the technology itself, however, which makes history: people do. The cyber activists and citizen journalists who toppled dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa are but the latest in a succession of journalists and media visionaries who have altered the course of history.
In the late 1980's in Russia, Eduard Sagalaev, a young television producer, transformed Soviet state television from a dull propaganda factory into a vibrant venue for political and cultural debate, bringing President Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens, providing them their first taste of freedom. Investigative journalists exposed the crimes of the Stalin era and the bleeding wound of Russia's failed war in Afghanistan. When Soviet hardliners launched a coup to restore Communist power, independent radio journalists provided the vital link that allowed Boris Yeltsin to galvanize popular resistance. From Latvia to Romania, journalists were on the front lines of the struggle for freedom and independence.
In the former Yugoslavia, media fell under the control of Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian ultra-nationalists who deployed them as instruments of war. In the end, however, it was the gutsy independent radio station B92 that helped mobilize the popular protests bringing down the dictatorship. After supporters of the independent television station Rustavi II in Georgia rallied against the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the "Rose Revolution" of 2003, demonstrators in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon overturned governments in other so-called "Color Revolutions." The popular jurists' movement that forced the resignation of Pakistan's strongman, General Perez Musharraf, was a virtual media revolution led largely by Pakistan's Geo TV. In Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere, journalists and media activists have organized people power movements challenging authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, in Burma, the end of censorship is leading the way towards the democratization of the country.
Western democracies have only begun to recognize the importance of media in foreign policy, while China has aggressively invested billions of dollars to export Chinese television to the world. In 2008, Li Changchun, the party leader responsible for propaganda, summed up China's rationale: "In the modern age, whichever nation's communication methods are most advanced, whichever nation's communication capacity is strongest... has the most power to influence the world." But what China fails to realize is that ultimately what counts are the journalists, both professionals and citizens, whose skills and courage will continue to speak truth to power. In humanity's never ending search for freedom, these journalists deserve our greatest respect.
--Hoffman is President Emeritus and Founder of Internews, an international non-profit media development organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard. Formed in 1982, Internews has worked in more than 90 countries, and currently has offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America. Visit www.internews.org