Australian newspapers on Monday has surely sent ripples around the media world. In a rare show of unity, the country's competing major newspapers published redacted front pages in protest of government secrecy on national security grounds. The protest is unprecedented.
The newspapers showed blacked-out text beside red stamps marked "secret". According to BBC and AP reports, the protest was aimed at national security laws which journalists say have stifled reporting and created a "culture of secrecy" in Australia.
We are not used to seeing press and government authorities at loggerheads in societies which boast a long history of democratic culture. However, reports say that the tension was building up from June when police raided the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the home of a News Corp Australia journalist in search of leaked government documents that was embarrassing to the government. The raids generated a huge media outcry.
The Monday newspaper front pages ask: When the government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering?
The campaign by the Right to Know Coalition was also supported by several TV, radio and online outlets.
Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australia, in a tweet, wrote: "Every time a government imposes new restrictions on what journalists can report, Australians should ask: 'What are they trying to hide from me?'"
News Corp Australia's chief rival in the industry is Nine, which publishes Sydney Morning Herald. The Newspaper ran similar front pages. Its editor Lisa Davis in a tweet wrote: "This is not a campaign for journalists - it's for Australia's democracy."
Australian media organizations argue that press freedoms have been eroded by more than 70 counterterrorism and security laws that have been passed by Parliament since the al-Qaida attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
However, the incidents in Australia are barely unique and isolated phenomenon. It has echoes in every corner of the globe. In the wake of crumbling democratic institutions and the rise of populist leaders, press freedom is pushed to the frontline.
Take the case of India, the largest democracy in the world which has a history of multiculturalism. On June this year, the country was abuzz with reports of coercive measures against several journalists who have been detained over tweets and reporting.
In August "Foreign Policy", an American Magazine, ran an article headlined "Indian media can't speak truth to power". It claimed that journalism was in trouble in the country and it could have dire consequences to democracy.
The article said, Indian media was no longer able to adequately hold its prime minister or his government to scrutiny. The mainstream media—especially the country's influential TV news channels—functioned largely as government mouthpieces, with only a few exceptions. In an era of fake news and low trust in the media, an enfeebled class of journalists could eventually lead to a weakening of the very democracy that defines modern India, the article said.
In November 2016, when Narendra Modi recalled 86 percent of the country's currency many influential media outlets failed to ask crucial questions. Instead, the journalists helped spread the incorrect perception that phony economics could fix big problems.
Again, on last February, when Indian military pilots struck the Pakistani town of Balakot in response to a suicide attack on its soldiers, India's media was awash in jingoistic sentiments, unquestioningly publishing in print and broadcasting on TV what the government fed them. Instead of seeking truth the newspapers were selling only New Delhi's version of events.
It was no surprise that the country ranked 140 out of 180 countries in Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. India fell behind violence-ridden Afghanistan and South Sudan.
Bangladesh also didn't spare well in the last Press Freedom Index, ranking 150th. It slided down four notches from the previous year, getting behind Afghanistan (121) and Pakistan (142). A report this year carried out by Reporters Without Borders, said, the situation was worrying in Bangladesh, where reporters covering protests and the election were the targets of unprecedented violence.
Moreover, the situation of Bangladesh had an echo of Australia when last year the media people took to the streets protesting the passing of Digital Security Act, a new law that the journalists alleged could create a crisis for independent journalism and hamper freedom of speech. Editor's Council, a venerated body of newspaper editors, issued a statement demanding amendments of a number of sections. The statement was carried at the front page of almost all the major newspapers.
However, the picture is bleak all over the world. Even the advanced democracies of Europe are not spared. According to Freedom House's "Freedom in the World" data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms.
In an article published in Freedom House, Sarah Repucci, a Senior Director for Research and Analysis wrote that the downward trend of media and press freedom are linked to a global decline in democracy itself. The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.