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Press freedom remains central to a successful democracy

Saturday 7 May 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion

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Press freedom remains central to a successful democracy
Al Jazeera reporter Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years’ jail for “Producing false news to defame Egypt.” He was released in 2016 after serving one year. Photo: Supplied/22050608

World Press Freedom Day was celebrated on May 3. In this opinion pieceAustralian High Commissioner Dr Chris Watkins reflects on the role of the press, which he says extends well beyond protecting democracy.

Australian journalist Peter Greste was released in 2016 after more than a year in an Egyptian gaol.

He had been sentenced to seven years’ jail for “producing false news to defame Egypt.”

He has said: “One of the central tenets of a successful liberal democracy is press freedom. As voters, we employ our elected officials to run the government on our behalf, and as with all bosses, we have a right to know what they get up to. In any democratic system worth the title, that happens through good, sceptical, independent - and at times, aggressive journalism.”

For those of us who live in free societies like Australia and the Cook Islands, it’s tempting to think we are lucky to do so. That’s not true. Societies are free because the rule of law is prosecuted fairly by officers of state; because citizens are given a voice in their governance; and because journalists and news organisations prod and uncover and sift through the actions of the powerful and hold them up to the light.

But the role of the press is not just about upholding democracy, it’s about connecting society, and telling our story to ourselves. All nations are imagined communities. It’s hard to empathise with people whose life stories are vastly different. The stories journalists like you tell connect people in Melbourne with remote Mission Beach in Northern Queensland, or Rarotonga with remote Pukapuka. Or even Pukapuka to the hundreds of Pukapukans who live in Mission Beach.

It’s so important to have not just local stories, but a local perspective on global stories. I believe your news pages shouldn’t be solely composed of stories from New Zealand or Australia, just as ours shouldn’t be written from the UK or the US. But it is also true that we should share our stories to better understand each other.

A quick search on the Australian National Library’s wonderful Trove database finds as early as 1814, the Sydney Gazette reporting on efforts to collect sandalwood in Rarotonga, and the kindness of the local people here to those early Australian visitors. The story ends, I regret to advise, in murder and cannibalism – possibly on this very beach - but still, an early example of journalism connecting our nations.

So I wanted to take the opportunity today to buy you a drink to mark the role you play in this democracy and society, whether its talk-back or the nightly news. I read the papers here front to back, I tune in to the radio and TV news and I take real pleasure in the work you do. Like so many families in Rarotonga we enjoy dissecting the day’s news at our kitchen table. You give us a daily entertainment, but also a vital service to democracy.

On behalf of the Australian journalists who are currently chasing politicians up and down my country in an election campaign, Happy World Press Freedom Day, keep up the good work, and cheers.