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In the middle of the Golden Week Holidays, newspapers around the world recognized their own special day on May 3: World Press Freedom Day. Officially established in 1993 by the U.N. General Assembly and organized annually by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the day offers an annual report on the issue of freedom of the press around the world. This year, though, there was little celebration and considerable alarm.

Oppression of the media is worse in every region of the world, according to WAN’s report and another from Freedom House, an organization supported by private donations and the U.S. government. Of the roughly 200 countries covered in the Freedom House study, only one-third were rated “free.” The other two-thirds were “partly free” or “not free.”

The deterioration of journalistic working conditions in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America was particularly rapid. Meanwhile, WAN listed 70 journalists killed in 2008. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit organization founded in 1981, documented 125 journalists jailed last year.

As the media becomes globalized, it becomes clear that the international news that arrives here in Japan is often created under oppressive conditions. The report also indicated that those countries with records of harsh labor conditions and exploitative workplaces are the very same ones where press freedom is restricted. A limited right to gather and disseminate information is directly linked to limited democracy. In the Middle East and China, as well as Central and Eastern Europe, an overall drop in press freedom last year accompanied the rise in assaults, jailing and killing of journalists.

The connection among freedoms in journalism, politics and economics is no coincidence. Access to information is a basic human right because of its intimate connection to political freedoms, standards of living and the right to know the truth on all issues large and small. The deaths and jailing of so many journalists translates into hundreds of articles and reports unwritten and unread in the last year alone.

Readers in countries with a free press like Japan will never know what those writers might have said about important issues in the most contentious, dangerous and quickly evolving spots in the world. The loss is incalculable.

Contrary to a common hope, the Internet has not necessarily enhanced press freedoms. This year, the CPJ found that 45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters or online editors. The ability of governments to clamp down on what goes up on the Internet has increased, with intimidation of independent media and freelance journalists increasing significantly.

Bloggers may have shifted some of the time-honored functions of the press to new formats, but they need traditional protections to exercise their rights just the same.

Back in Japan, those who do read the press can be proud that Japan has the second highest daily newspaper circulation per capita in the world! Japan sees relatively few attacks on media workers, but access to information is controlled by two factors: the continuance of the press club system, which limits access to information from important agencies and organizations; and an ongoing sense of self-censorship, which curtails reporting on embarrassing or controversial topics. The Japanese media need greater pluralism and independence, but the main threats to the press here come from complex libel laws, media ownership and public disinterest.

Yet, Japanese readers should understand how fully journalism, like many other areas of modern life, has become globalized. Japanese readers should know that supporting the work of journalists under repressive conditions abroad benefits readers here in the form of accurate information. The open, independent practice of journalism in relatively safe havens like North America, Western Europe and Japan has an effect that spreads out in all directions. If the press does not function independently and freely in developed countries, it cannot do so elsewhere.

During the past year, the need to defend press freedoms has become increasingly urgent. The global economic crisis has taken a toll on the press in every country. Long-established newspapers and magazines in America are shutting down, readership of daily papers is slipping, and the flow of information on many topics has slowed and often become muddled. Never before has the position of trained, experienced journalists, editors and publishers been so threatened by so many different forces. Yet, never before have human aspirations, social freedoms and better lives been so dependent on a freely functioning press.

The concept of an accurate, clear and unrestricted press is a relatively recent one in human history. It became an everyday practice in a few parts of the world only a few decades ago. One day, perhaps, World Press Freedom Day just might disappear. Let’s hope that that will happen because it has achieved its aims.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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