Today marks two decades since the United Nations General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day to celebrate press freedom and raise awareness about threats to media independence around the world. A free press plays a vital role in democratic societies, enabling the open exchange of information and opinions among ordinary citizens, businesses, citizen associations, political parties, and governments. Free and open media systems give voice to citizens, truth test candidates and political parties during elections, inform policy debates in legislatures, investigate corruption, hold public officials accountable, enable democratic governance and facilitate more effective development.
Yet the global struggle for press freedoms remains a work in progress. According to the latest Freedom House reports, the sobering reality is that more than one-third of all global citizens live under highly state-controlled media and information environments classified as “not free”.
In nearly 35 countries, USAID provides media development assistance, tailoring initiatives to local conditions and prevalent challenges. Using a multi-pronged strategy, USAID aims to strengthen journalists’ skills, build economic self-sustainability of media outlets, and legally protect press independence.
Since 2002, USAID has been instrumental in building a freer, more professional media in Afghanistan. Once very isolated, the Afghan people now enjoy unprecedented access to quality local newscasts (such as the national radio news program Salam Watandar) and international education and entertainment media. With USAID support, a national network of nearly 50 Afghan-owned and operated radio stations has emerged, reaching virtually all corners of the country. USAID also provided the initial seed capital for the highly successful independent television network Tolo TV, which now reaches over two-thirds of the population.
In Burma, USAID has worked for over a decade with more than 1,000 Burmese journalists, starting with support on the Thai-Burmese border in 2001 and extending inside Burma since 2003. Journalists trained in the program’s early years have now gone on to become leaders of the media industry, as part of both the local print media and the media in exile. USAID’s media program responded to almost every major development in the country: it equipped Burmese journalists with training and key support to cover the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the constitutional referendum in 2008, and the elections of 2010-2012.
In Eastern Europe, the USAID-funded Regional Investigative Journalism Network helps connect practicing investigative journalists across borders who seek to uncover corruption, organized crime, and others engaged in the criminal services industry.
In eight countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the “Building a Digital Gateway to Better Lives” program empowers professional and citizen journalists, giving them hands-on experience with digital tools to design and implement multimedia projects that report on public service issues affecting citizens’ everyday lives. Almost 300 journalists have participated in the program so far, with results felt throughout the region. Gripping stories of the abuse of children with disabilities in Jordan, human rights violations in Lebanese prisons, corruption in the West Bank/Gaza, polluted drinking water in Iraq, and detecting unexploded landmines in Morocco have attracted significant public interest and response.
Today and every day, USAID applauds the brave work of journalists, editors, and the increasing millions of “citizen reporters” throughout the world in their common pursuit to freely gather, report, analyze, and share news. We also commend the media activists who advocate for media development and freedom despite challenging and sometimes dangerous conditions. We salute you.