16.06.2011 - ODG

“New Democracies Need Quick Support” – ‘Göteborg Posten’, Sweden

© Göteborg Posten

Editorial article by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and Birgitta Ohlsson, Minister for European Union Affairs of Sweden, published on ‘Göteborg Posten’ of Sweden on Thursday, 16 June 2011. The English version of this article, published in Swedish on the ‘Göteborg Posten’, follows here below.

New democracies need quick support

The mix of pent-up frustration, democratic aspiration and the role of the new media recently changed the face of politics in North Africa. The Arab uprisings represent one of the greatest opportunities since the fall of the Berlin Wall to advance democracy and human rights. The lesson learned is just as topical in our days: democratic transformation requires strong support from the entire international community.

Freedom of expression plays a crucial role in this transformation, in order to ensure an inclusive public debate and government accountability. Freedom of speech and press freedom represent cornerstones of any successful democracy and must be a priority of international support.

In this regard, it is essential that the new communications tools are made available to the broadest possible extent, also bearing in mind the very instrumental role they played in changing the political landscape and represented the channel through which young people could gather those willing to stand up for changes and democracy.

Therefore, we must now act on three levels.

First, freedom of expression needs the proper enabling environment, represented here foremost by the digital public space. But connecting the Internet is simply not enough. It must be accompanied by the adequate legal and social environment, to ensure that the freedom of expression is guaranteed and the safety of all journalists is protected. Sweden has long experience to share here, as the first country in the world to adopt a freedom of information law, in 1766.

The huge democratic potential of Internet has paradoxically been recognized by governments wishing to oppress their own civilian population and silence the voice requiring democratic changes with lethal force. Over the past decade, more than 500 journalists have been killed in the line of duty. According to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, more online journalists than “traditional” ones are now thrown into prison. At the first sign of protest in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the networks were brought down and Internet users were persecuted. The same is happening today in Syria, and the situation is alarming.

As the only United Nations agency mandated to protect freedom of expression and press freedom, UNESCO will continue to speak out to denounce any violations of this fundamental right. Sweden has been a much appreciated partner to UNESCO in this field. We are now working with the transition authorities In Tunisia and Egypt to reform media legislation. The next step will be to design a United Nations-wide action plan to protect the safety of journalists and to fight against impunity. It will require strong political will.

Secondly, Sweden and UNESCO have joined forces  to ensure the protection of cultural diversity on the web – for instance through multilingualism in internationalized Internet domain names. These issues guide the work also of the Broadband Commission for Digital development, co-chaired by UNESCO and International Telecommunication Union, to promote access to the Internet and quality content.

Thirdly, to improve and make it more easy to use the new media, we promote quality education and training. This is why we organize training workshops all throughout Tunisia and throughout the year -- to promote fair, safe and professional reporting during and after the elections. And there is a lot of work to be done. One of UNESCO’s overall aims is to ensure that media and information literacy be integrated in school curricula from the early years and onwards.

Freedom of expression, speech and media are closely intertwined. The promising events of the spring have shown the paramount importance of the new communication channels in order to fight for these freedoms. In January last, at the International Symposium on Freedom of Expression in Paris, we both highlighted the importance of free speech and made a strong appeal to raise the profile of communication in the development agenda. This vision must be supported and furthered. A culture of free speech and free media takes years to consolidate. It calls for a wide range of activities, both on the national and the local level. This is why we must start now and join our efforts to ensure the possibility for all citizens to be able to make their voices, opinions and wishes heard.

- Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and Birgitta Ohlsson, Minister for European Union Affairs of Sweden

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