Journalists should not pay the high price of free speech on their own

On May 3, we mark the World Press Freedom Day. This occasion offers a good opportunity for us to consider the high price media processionals continue to pay.
Ten journalists were killed in Afghanistan this week, including BBC reporter Ahmad Shah and AFP’s photographer Shah Marai. Shah was shot dead by an unknown attacker in the east of the country on Monday, while Marai was among dozens of victims, among them many journalists, of a bombing in the capital Kabul on the same day.
This is the second major act of aggression against journalists since 2015, when journalists of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered.
Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were killed in February this year, while investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta last fall.
These deadly attempts to silence the journalism that seeks to expose the vicious ties between governments, the mafia, and individuals who pursue their interests by hiding behind offshore bank accounts and using public resources for personal gain took place in Slovakia and Malta – two countries that joined the European Union (EU) in 2004 as part of the largest enlargement round to this day.
Other reasons for concern at the EU level include the growing number of media closures, the removal of critical journalists from the public service media in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and the attempts for the imposition of covert censorship and self-censorship.
In this context, Bulgaria came 111th in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, lagging even behind countries in which journalists have been harassed. The index shows how media professionals perceive the environment in which they work and, unfortunately, the result is unambiguous.
AEJ-Bulgaria’s studies on the state of the journalistic profession and the media environment in the country have painted an identical picture: journalists work under tough conditions and often feel subjected to undue pressure. Empty chairs became a metaphor for the danger of losing one’s job that even journalists at the largest media organizations are faced with if they harm the interests of those in power. The high social insecurity, often coupled with a potential risk to one’s personal safety, is the price that media professionals in Bulgaria have to pay.
One thing is certain: the price is so high that no matter how many brave journalists there are, media professionals will not be able to pay it on their own. And this price should be paid not because of the journalists themselves – most of them could easily find safer and better paid jobs – but because of their readers, listeners, and viewers, because of the entire society. The refusal to support independent media means that the society agrees to cover the very high cost of corruption schemes. This should be obvious to taxpayers, who bear the burden of repaying the debts of the bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) – a bank which invested a lot of money in perverting the media environment while preparing for its draining. If this is not obvious to a big part of the society, then this society should be ready to pay the bill for other similar schemes.
That is why it is so important to work towards improving media literacy at all levels, from elementary school students to pensioners. It is equally important to talk about the interrelationship between free media, a functional rule-of-law system, and sustainable economic development.
Happy World Press Freedom Day! Let’s defend independent journalism because it guarantees the protection of the interests of all citizens.

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