Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media
World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2013. It was first officially proclaimed during the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. Ever since then, UNESCO as the UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press, has been promoting these fundamental rights in every region of the world. The UNESCO Constitution states a commitment to foster the “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and the “free flow of ideas by word and image”. To advance these lofty goals, the WPFD has been commemorated worldwide by many stakeholders each year on 3 May, and has emerged as an effective way to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom.
The call for the international calendar to observe the importance of press freedom was originally made at a meeting in Namibia of African journalists convened by UNESCO in 1991. It is a central part of the Windhoek Declaration which was adopted at the meeting, and which was also endorsed by the UNESCO General Assembly in the same year. The Declaration spelt out that the precondition for press freedom is a free, independent, and pluralistic media environment. The Windhoek Declaration described a media landscape that is free from governmental, political or economic control, including freedom as regards the infrastructure essential for doing journalism. Independent designated the importance of professional standards and public interest as the sole determinant of media content. The Declaration also elaborated on a pluralistic media environment. This referred to the absence of media monopolies (whether state or private), and the alternative of the greatest possible number of media platforms (which includes recognition of community media). Pluralism is about providing maximum choice and participation in news and views.
The Windhoek perspective applies equally today to broadcasting and digital media platforms. Indeed, increasingly mobile phones, Internet and satellite are becoming more central to all communications. The same applies to the application to these platforms of the international standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Geneva Conventions; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2005/81; the UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006). Cognisance of all these principles needs to be taken into account on these burgeoning platforms by the range of actors involved, whether State bodies, private sector intermediaries , the media, civil society and individual users. Meanwhile, threats to press freedom nowadays emanate not only from some of these agencies which fail to respect rights, but also from organized crime and extremist organizations.
It is furthermore clear today that building a culture to support press freedom is generally a lengthy process, while what has been won for press freedom can also be lost in a matter of months when negative forces gain control of a country. But the potential for progress has become possible in many cases through changes such as in countries touched by the Arab Spring as well as in Myanmar and South Sudan. Decades of political regimes that were not conducive for press freedom are making way for a new environment that holds great promise. The international community is working closely with the authorities and the citizenry in these and other countries to ensure that positive developments can translate into long-lasting safeguards for freedom of expression and press freedom.
One major development in this international co-operation on press freedom is the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which was endorsed last year by the chief executives of all component UN bodies. However, securing the safety of journalists continues to be a challenge due to an upward trend in the killings of journalists, media workers, and social media producers. In 2012 alone, UNESCO’s Director-General condemned the killings of 121 journalists, almost double the annual figures of 2011 and 2010. In addition, there continues to be widespread harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and online attacks on journalists in many parts of the world. To compound the problem, the rate of impunity for crimes against journalists, media workers and social media producers remains extremely high.
Responding to this overall context of press freedom, WPFD 2013 focuses on the theme of “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media” and puts the spotlight in particular on the issues of safety of journalists, combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, and securing a free and open Internet as the precondition for safety online.
This focus builds upon principles set out in the Medellin Declaration on “Securing the Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity” which was adopted by the participants of the WPFD held in Colombia in 2007. The Medellin Declaration urges States to comply with the commitments of Resolution 29 adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1997 to combat impunity of crimes against journalists and to comply with Resolution 1738, adopted the year before by the United Nations Security Council, regarding the status of journalists during war. It further calls on news associations to promote actions that secure the safety of journalists. The issue was again highlighted in the Carthage Declaration of WPFD 2012, and gained further impetus in key reports by two UN Special Rapporteurs as well as in other reports from the regional Special Rapporteurs. Also last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Safety of Journalists calling for "States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference". It condemned in the strongest terms all attacks and violence against journalists, and expressed its concern at the growing threat to the safety of journalists posed by non-State actors .
These developments coincide with the growing awareness that ensuring freedom of expression must also necessarily extend to safety online. This adds to the importance of online media which has been recognized in recent WPFD celebrations. The “freedom to connect” was highlighted in WPFD 2011 (Washington DC) where new media, including blog and other social media, were highlighted as agents of change. At WPFD 2012 (Tunis), the societal aspect of this freedom was highlighted especially within the context of the Arab Spring movement. This year, we build further on this topic by highlighting the need to promote an open and free environment online for the safe exercise of press freedom in this arena.Back to top