As journalists, media experts, and freedom of expression activists gather in Accra, Ghana, to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, we hear from current and former National Endowment for Democracy fellows on the integral role of media for democracy in their countries and globally. This year’s global theme is ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice, and the Rule of Law,’ encompassing both the role of media in ensuring transparency and, for experts like Judge Claudia Escobar, the need to defend freedom of expression through international standards and an enabling legal environment. Journalist Rafael Marques de Morais can personally attest to both: actively exposing corruption and pushing for transparency in the Angolan government, he is once again standing trial for his efforts. Former journalist and rights activist Passy Mubalama and documentarian Risham Waseem add to that the need for media in calling attention to ongoing rights challenges, as in refugee camps of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in encouraging youth participation in a fraught and developing democracy like Pakistan. While each know the challenges facing independent media in acutely personal contexts, their stories reverberate globally – as do their continued efforts to speak up and enable every voice to join in keeping power in check.
Judge Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of the Court of Appeals of Guatemala and a respected legal scholar. Following her second election to the Court of Appeals in 2014, she became the lead whistleblower in a case of grand corruption that revealed illegal interference in Guatemala’s judiciary by high-ranking political officials – including the country’s vice president and the former president of congress. Following a series of threats she received for speaking out against corruption in Guatemala’s judiciary, Escobar relocated to the United States in 2015 to continue her legal work and advocacy for judicial independence. A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, she received the Democracy Award in 2017. Escobar is currently a Centennial Fellow at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service and continues to actively engage in conversations regarding transparency and the right to freedom of expression.
Passy Mubalama is a pro-democracy and women’s rights activist with over 7 years of experience in promoting democracy, human rights, good governance, and the rule of law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A former journalist, Mubalama has worked for radio, television, and print media organizations internationally, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. In 2011, her experiences reporting human rights violations from Goma’s refugee camps inspired her to found the Action and Development Initiative for the Protection of Women and Children (AIDPROFEN), a nonprofit organization promoting women’s rights in the eastern region of the DRC.
Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan investigative journalist and human rights defender focused on investigating government corruption and abuses in the diamond industry. The director of watchdog website Maka Angola, Marques is currently facing charges for insulting a public authority following an exposé on shady land deals under the former attorney general. Throughout his career, he has experienced several run-ins with the Angolan authorities, arrests, legal and physical harassment, economic and social sanctions, and remains under permanent surveillance. For his tireless work in exposing corruption and defending human rights, Marques has received the Transparency International Integrity Award, the Journalism Award from Index on Censorship, and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award, among others.
Risham Waseem is a documentarian and the Creative Director at Maati TV, a web TV channel that promotes peace and democracy in Pakistan. She also serves as the Media Officer at the Interactive Resource Center, a non-profit organization striving to build consciousness among marginalized populations using interactive art forms such as theatre and film. Currently a Hurford Youth Fellow at the World Movement for Democracy, Waseem is pursuing research in global media trends that threaten to promote populist and nationalist narratives and discredit democracy. Continuing to encourage youth participation in democratic debate, Waseem is also developing a digital series to counter misconceptions associated with democracy in Pakistan.