Media Freedom for a Better Future: Shaping the Post-2015 Development Agenda

World Press Freedom Day in 2014 focuses on three inter-related themes: media’s importance in development; safety of journalists and the rule of law; and the sustainability and integrity of journalism.

In 2015, the lofty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will come to an end. Their influence in shaping flows of development aid, and national policies and practices, has been significant. In their place will likely be a new set of goals, which are being debated internationally under the label of "the post 2015 Development Agenda”.

A High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP), co-chaired by the President of Liberia, President of Indonesia and Prime Minister of United Kingdom, has been assembled by the United Nations Secretary General to make recommendations on the issue.  Their report makes detailed recommendations towards twelve universal goals for the decade after 2015. The 2014 World Press Freedom Day is envisaged as a further contribution to the shaping of the ongoing discussion around development after 2015.

Some of the goals listed by the HLP have a direct link to the current MDGs, while others are relatively new. Noteworthy amongst the new goals are those ensuring good governance and effective institutions, and in which freedom of speech and the media, openness, transparency and access to information are specifically highlighted. 

A further contribution to the debate has been made by the United Nations Groups on the Information Society (UNGIS).  It has proposed that ICTs as key enablers of development are fully recognized in the post-2015 development agenda, and has pointed out that “ICTs in general, and the Internet in particular, play an important part in ensuring rights-based development, especially enabling wider exercise of freedom of expression and press freedom, which in turn are critical to combating corruption, ensuring gender-sensitivity, deepening accountability, and promoting socially inclusive development”.

The observations of the High Level Panel and UNGIS coincide with the long-standing positions of UNESCO. Since its foundation UNESCO has placed freedom of expression and freedom of media at the core of its mission. Its Constitution, adopted in November 1945, states that UNESCO Member States will "collaborate in the work of advancing the mutual knowledge and understanding of all peoples, through all means of mass communication" and "promotes the free flow of ideas by word and image”. UNESCO further follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), whose Article 19 stipulates: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the Windhoek Declaration of 1991, UNESCO defined press freedom as covering media freedom, pluralism and independence. In the years that followed, the importance of the safety of journalists and gender-sensitivity has become integral to this conceptualization.

At its recent 37th Session in November 2013, UNESCO’s General Conference passed a resolution that highlights the importance of promoting, in the post-2015 Development Agenda, three key concerns: freedom of expression; universal access to knowledge and its preservation; and free, pluralistic and independent media, both offline and online. The resolution described these as indispensable elements for flourishing democracies and to foster citizen participation.

For UNESCO, freedom of expression and its corollary of press freedom and freedom of information are both fundamental rights as well as enablers of many goals relevant to the post-2015 Development Agenda. These include good governance, transparency and access to information, empowerment of women and youth, ending poverty, and ensuring stable and peaceful societies.

However, it is not a given that full recognition of media’s significance will find its way into the final post-2015 Development Agenda. Supporters of press freedom worldwide need to understand and contribute to the debate if the insights are to be mainstreamed within the evolving conceptualisation of the meaning of development and the actions that taken to realize this objective.

The reason why free, pluralistic and independent media, covering print, broadcast and online, are crucial for a holistic development agenda is their facilitation of an inclusive public sphere for involving citizens in the processes of good governance and sustainable development. Media role is vital if cultural pluralism to play its part as a driver of development, and if there is to be widespread informal education to underpin development.

In particular, within the broader media landscape, it is recognized that the news media – whether private, public or community-owned – are especially important. They help a society to define the meaning of development, including its relation to human rights and democratic values. They have impact as agenda-setters and as vehicles by which the public is informed. Further, the news media, and others who contribute journalism in the public sphere including on social media platforms, act as watchdogs of the people and scrutinize those in power, expose wrong doings and promote transparency. 

From a development point of view, the safety of journalists is fundamental if these roles are to be fulfilled. By late November 2013, however, 65 journalists had been registered as killed over the year, according to UNESCO’s list of assassinated journalists. In previous years, a small fraction of the killers have been brought to justice. The safety of journalists in a society is a symptom of the strength of the rule of law, which is vital for any government charged with advancing development. As such, journalistic safety constitutes a barometer of fragility or failure on the part of a state, which overall  is one of the largest obstacles to development.

In this context, the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, adopted in 2012 by the UN Chief Executives Board, is a significant step on the road to the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Plan brings together the UN family, other international organisations, national governments, media and civil society to combine forces to stop the killing of journalists and the accompanying impunity which serves to perpetuate the cycle.  The UNESCO Work Plan on the safety of journalists, adopted in 2013, adds further impetus. Progress on the safety of journalists has been made to date, and World Press Freedom Day provides an opportunity to strengthen and expand existing efforts.

Development not only needs journalists to be free, pluralistic independent and safe. It also rests on the sustainability and professionalism of journalism itself. As such, the state of journalism itself is a development issue. “Sustainability” in this context means a viable institutional basis that enables and protects the independence journalism; “professionalism” refers to the standards, such as verification and public interest, which give journalism its integrity and distinguish it from other uses of freedom of expression. Professionalism also encompasses the ability of journalists to report on key development issues, not least those entailing issues of social marginalization, poverty, science and environment.

In the evolving mediascape today, online social media provides new opportunities, but also sets challenges to the traditional news media.  Long-standing distinctions such as between editorial content and advertising are blurring. There are overlaps between community media and other media sectors as all increasingly articulate with social media and enable public voice. There are questions about the distinctive role of news media in the face of many new actors, both individuals and institutions, who generate or mediate news content outside of the traditional institutions. Electronic communications and big data raise important issues of how privacy and ethics impact on freedom of expression and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. Increased public access to means of communication raises other questions of accessibility such as linguistic, gender and other exclusions. Media and information literacy competencies are increasingly significant if the public is to find, assess and participate in the integrity of information flows that are relevant to development and its debates.

In summary, World Press Freedom Day 2014 examines the interrelated issues of the role of media in development, the correlative of the need for the safety of journalists, and matters related to the development of journalism itself.

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