Most days, It’s with a great sense of disquiet that I watch the Facebook generation expose the intimate details of their lives to the world. I’m also prone to feelings of despair as I lurch through the abysmal syntax of online newspapers? comment sections. But May 3 brought a certain grudging affection for this flood of information, no matter how poorly written or copious it might be.
In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, ?an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom . . . to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.?
It’s not a date most people give a second thought to. Bombarded with news reports on television, radio, and the Internet, it doesn’t occur to us that, in some countries, writing an article or filming a news segment can be deadlier than going to war. As we channel surf past the talking heads on CNN or the CBC, or click through endless blogs and social networking sites, the idea that freely expressing your opinion would bring a knock on the door and a trip to a torture cell seems ridiculous.
For Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, attacks on the press became a deadly reality. On June 23, 2003, Kazemi was taking photos of a student-led protest outside Evin prison in Tehran. The photos would cost her life: she was arrested and spent 77 hours being interrogated and tortured by police, prosecutors, and intelligence officials. Her injuries were so severe she later died in hospital.
For Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer, journalist, and businessman, the pen became a powerful tool to fight the brutal social and ecological devastation that oil companies brought in their hunger for profits. His non-violent movement for justice was effective: the oil companies eventually pulled out, but his voice was silenced. On November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues ?were executed by the Nigerian state for campaigning against the devastation of the Niger Delta by oil companies, especially Shell and Chevron.?
The deaths of Zahra Kazemi and Ken Saro-Wiwa resounded internationally, but they are not alone. In the past two years, 121 journalists have been murdered: 68 in 2006 and 53 in 2007. According to one UN body, ?only 6.7 per cent of journalists? murders? ever lead to convictions.
The silencing of journalists continues. The UN News Centre reports that Felicitas Martínez Sánchez, 21, and Teresa Bautista Merino, 24, ?were shot dead as they travelled along a highway in Oaxaca state on 7 April.? Their crime? They were on a reporting assignment for community radio. Russia, China, Afghanistan?the list of countries is long, rife with leaders who either sanction or turn a blind eye to the violent oppression.
And in case you dismiss the blatant control of the press as something that could never happen in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s actions show otherwise. Shortly after being elected, Harper decided that, in press conferences, he would only answer questions from selected journalists, those whose questions had been approved ahead of time by his staff. Reporters refused to be intimated and walked out of a press conference, prompting Harper to declare that he would only speak to local media.
So as you skim over endless headlines and tune out the drone of TV newscasters, take a moment to remember those who remain silenced and imprisoned today; those who have paid a heavy price for believing that speech can be free. PEN Canada is a good place to start.