06.05.2008 -

More power to people through freedom of information

Some 150 media professionals from around the world adopted a declaration emphasizing the importance of freedom of expression and free access to information to participatory democracy at the close of a two-day conference entitled "Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and the Empowerment of People" in Maputo.

Also during the celebration of World Press Freedom Day in the capital of Mozambique on Saturday, the Mexican reporter, Lydia Cacho Ribeiro received the 2008 UNESCO Press Freedom Prize, awarded to her by the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, in a ceremony held in the presence of the President of the Republic of Mozambique Armando Guebuza.

Aiming to encourage UNESCO Member States to implement policies that are favourable to the basic human right of freedom of expression and that facilitate access to information, the "Maputo Declaration: Fostering Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People" emphasizes the importance of open government, transparency, accountability and public access to information.

The declaration recognizes the contribution of public service, commercial and community broadcasting to enable all members of society, including marginalized populations, to be heard and take part in the decision-making process. It further calls on the media and on the press to contribute to access to information and facilitate the participation of marginalized and linguistic minorities.

Recalling the ongoing commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the participants urge UNESCO to pursue its work promoting freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of that Declaration, and to facilitate the development of general principles and best practices on access to information.

The Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura reiterated his commitment in favour of freedom of expression as an essential human right, which remains as important as ever on this 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"It is fitting," he said, "that this year's celebration of world press freedom day should take place in Mozambique, a country committed to freedom of the press." The Director-General went on to praise Mozambique's cooperation in the community multimedia centres' (CMC) scale up initiative launched at the World Summit on the Information Society and the number of community radio stations in the country that have become fully fledged CMC that "help reduce the digital gap by providing communities with access to radio, internet and associate technologies."

"Information is the lifeblood of all political systems," the Director-General added, stressing the conviction that a well-informed citizenry is essential for the development of good governance, combating corruption and for the fight against poverty. In choosing the theme of empowerment and access to information, Mr Matsuura said, we pay tribute to the men and women who have died in pursuit of truth, and in trying to make that truth known.

"The uncomfortable truth is that the majority of them have died in their home, in their cars or in the streets," he said. "They were not victims of war, they were murdered because they wanted to speak the truth," added Mr Matsuura, recalling that at least seventeen journalists have been assassinated over the last five years in Mexico, the country of this year's UNESCO Press Freedom Prize laureate, Lydia Cacho Ribeiro.

Ms Cacho Ribeiro, has, herself, been the object of repeated death threats and police harassment, and, as he gave her the Prize, Mr Matsuura quoted an Afghan proverb according to which, "you can cut a flower but you cannot stop the spring."

As she took the floor, Ms Cacho Ribeiro declared that "the award may not protect me from death threats or from death itself, but it will help my written work and help people understand the impact of crime and child pornography. When I was tortured and imprisoned I was confronted with enduring questions about the meaning of life; should I continue practicing journalism in a country controlled by just 300 rich men? Was it worth continuing working in a country where the majority of crimes are not investigated? The answer was, of course, yes."

Ms Cacho Ribeiro described herself as a "feminist advocate against violence" and spoke of her vocation as a journalist saying that journalists must never become the messengers of the powerful." She concluded by declaring that "there is something wrong in a world that favours economic growth over education, where racism and sexism separate us from each other."

Born in 1963, Ms Cacho Ribeiro is a contributor to the daily newspaper La Voz del Caribe. Through investigative journalism, she uncovered the involvement of businessmen, politicians and drug traffickers in prostitution and child pornography. In 2006, she was awarded the Francisco Ojeda Award for journalistic courage and in 2007 the Amnesty International Ginetta Sagan Award for Women and Children's Rights.

In his address, the President of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza, said that Mozambique subscribes to "the message of the Director-General that a well informed citizenry is useful for the development of the country. We believe in participatory democracy and its usefulness in the fight against poverty."

The President said that "the increase in the number of media in Mozambique, around 300 today, and its diversity is something we encourage and celebrate. The role of the media in diversifying information is also necessary for the development of the country and of communities."

President Guebuza went on to outline Mozambique's constitutional and legal support for freedom of expression and saluted UNESCO for its work promoting press freedom internationally.

During the ceremony the Minister of Education and Culture of Mozambique, Aires Bonifacio Ali, also took the floor and welcomed the choice of Mozambique for this year's celebration, saying it constituted recognition of the country's progress in achieving press freedom.

Created in 1997 by UNESCO's Executive Board, the Prize is awarded yearly to honour the work of an individual or an organization defending or promoting freedom of expression anywhere in the world, especially if this action puts the individual's life at risk. Candidates are proposed by UNESCO Member States, and regional or international organizations that defend and promote freedom of expression.

The Prize is named after Guillermo Cano, the Colombian newspaper publisher assassinated in 1987 for denouncing the activities of powerful drug barons in his country.

Since its creation, the US $25,000 prize, financed by the Cano and Ottaway family foundations, has been awarded to the following laureates: Anna Politkovskaya (Russian Federation, 2007), May Chidiac (Lebanon, 2006), Cheng Yizhong, (China, 2005), Raúl Rivero (Cuba, 2004), Amira Hass (Israel, 2003), Geoffrey Nyarota (Zimbabwe, 2002), U Win Tin (Myanmar, 2001), Nizar Nayyouf (Syria, 2000), Jesus Blancornelas (Mexico, 1999), Christina Anyanwu (Nigeria, 1998), Gao Yu (China, 1997).

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