Thursday, May 3, was designated as "World Press Freedom Day" today (April 30) by the California Legislature, echoing a 1993 action by the United Nations.
But in a world where the definition of "press" is changing almost moment by moment -- where traditional journalism is melding with social media, blogs, tweets and texting (with photos and videos even) -- what does "world press freedom" mean?
For many journalists, it means life or death, often with intimidation or even torture. For others it can mean simply taking the harder path, not being afraid of criticism or personal attacks, or resisting softer blandishments of praise or persuasion, which undermine trust when a journalist succumbs to them.
And many believe press freedom worldwide may be declining, there are many of us in the United States who are concerned about the quality of reporting in a nation divided politically, when some major news outlets adhere more to ideological positions, right or left, than to balanced reporting.
State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) believes a free press still is vitally important -- perhaps as or more important than virtually any time in history. His Senate Joint Resolution 22 was passed unanimously today by the California Legislature, something of a rarity in itself. Simitian and two other world-press-freedom advocates then presented a copy to representatives of the Sacramento Press Club, to make it official.
"A free press is something thatï¿½s easy to take for granted in the United States,ï¿½ Simitian said, citing the 1791 Constitutional guarantee of press freedom.
"But hearing stories of journalists in other countries who have been tortured and beaten for going about their day-to-day reporting reminds us just how important it is that we stand up and defend this fundamental right."
What the average person -- or average journalist -- can do isn't specifically spelled out by the resolution or Simitian's announcement.
Yet the threat is real, and deadly.
Worldwide, at least 43 journalists -- five in the past week -- have lost their lives this year doing their work, according to the International Press Institute (IPI), a network of editors and journalists based in Vienna, Austria. Thus 2012 is one of the deadliest years for journalists since the network started tracking journalists' deaths in the late 1990s, according the Anthony Mills, acting deputy director of IPI.
Mills and Jim Clancy, anchor of the weekly CNN program, "The Brief," joined Simitian in his call for greater attention to the issue of how a strong media is linked to democratic societies, and the challenge of supporting and expanding media freedom -- in whatever form it takes.
More than 1,139 journalists worldwide have died due to their work or while on assignment, Mills said.
Those killed in the past week include two Syrian photojournalists, a Pakistani magazine editor who was tortured and murdered, and two investigators -- one in Brazil and one in Peru who were investigating the murder of journalists -- were gunned down.
The challenge is immense. Only 15 percent of citizens worldwide live in countries with a free press, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit consultant to the United Nations -- which declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993.
"In too many countries, journalists continue to be persecuted for their reporting. Each year dozens are killed; still more are beaten, imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured or intimidated in other ways," Mills said, as quoted by a release from Simitian's office.
"This resolution reaffirms the vital role of press freedom and draws necessary attention to a day on which people around the world join together to celebrate the contributions of journalists to democracy, to remember those journalists who have given their lives in doing so, and to rededicate themselves to promoting accountability in government and strengthening civil society."
Links to recent IPI stories of persecuted journalists are at www.freemedia.at .
In comments relating to the resolution, Simitian summed up the crisis: "While the idea of a free press is deeply ingrained in American society, across the world courageous journalists are subject to censorship, shutdowns, deportation, imprisonment, torture and death." (A full copy of his mini-essay is at www.senatorsimitian.com .)
Threats to press freedom take many forms, he notes.
Ethiopian journalists who have investigated or criticized the government have been labeled terrorists. Turkey has imprisoned nearly 100 journalists, using anti-terror laws. Seven Brazilian journalists have been killed in 2011 and 2012, and journalists "continue to be targeted by drug cartels, powerful local politicians and others who fear the consequences of investigative reporting."
"Yet brave men and women continue to risk their lives," Simitian observes. "Their reasons are an inspiration to those of us living in societies where free expression is protected; and, all too often, taken for granted.
Tawakkol Karman, a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and an activist for press freedom in Yemen, told the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, that freedom of expression "is the right that the youth of the Arab Spring used to commence their revolutions."
A free press, he said, "is both the means and the goal of any change: In the absence of a free press, there is no democracy."
Anabel Hernandez, who has reported on the power of Mexican drug cartels, told the association why journalists must persevere: "By keeping quiet, we -- the Mexican journalism community -- endorse the violence, the impunity and the loathsome corruption that is strangling our nation.
"If we remain silent we kill freedom, justice and the possibility that a society armed with information may have the power to change the situation that has brought us to this point."
"Rights are strengthened by exercising them," Simitian concludes. "World Press Freedom Day reminds us that democracies, whether they are struggling to come into being, or have a longstanding history, depend for their survival on the rights of a free press and freedom of expression, and those who boldly assert them.
"Spread the word."
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be reached at email@example.com with a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org.