Message from UNESCO Director-General

Message from Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2008).

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Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right recognized in Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year. On World Press Freedom Day 2008, UNESCO pays tribute to the courage and professionalism of the many journalists and media professionals killed and wounded while carrying out their professional activities, by dedicating this Day to the themes of empowerment and access to information.

Alongside the dangers of conflict areas and war zones, journalists often face threats, intimidation and actual violence as a direct result of their work. These acts are unconscionable, not only because they violate the human rights of individuals, but also because they impede the free flow of accurate and reliable information which underpins good governance and democracy. Too often these crimes are not adequately punished.

Press freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people by giving people the information that can help them gain control over their own lives. This empowerment supports participatory democracy by giving citizens the capacity to engage in public debate and to hold governments and others accountable. But this flow of communication does not happen automatically. It has to be fostered by a free, pluralistic, independent and professional media, and through national policies founded on four key principles at the heart of UNESCO’s work: freedom of expression, quality education for all, universal access to information and knowledge, and respect for linguistic diversity. Indeed, the freedom to express oneself in one’s mother tongue as widely and as often as possible and to master other national, regional or international languages is being highlighted by UNESCO in this International Year of Languages. Without strong policies to foster linguistic diversity in all aspects of a nation’s life – in schools, administration, law and in the media - we risk denying hundreds of thousands of people around the work of the basic right to engage in public life and debate.

Technological advances – for example the internet – allow the media to reach more people in more places, allow people to share their opinions more readily, and allow information to flow across borders. These are huge benefits. But freedom of information, and online information, alone do not guarantee access. People also need the internet connectivity and IT resources to use that information, for example to access national or international news or to provide a plurality of media options, including community radio. Even more fundamentally, they need to have the capacity to use these tools - and this can only come about through the universal provision of quality education and promotion of multilingualism.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day 2008, let us remember three things:

First, the courage of those journalists who have put themselves at risk in order to provide the public with accurate and independent information

Second, that press freedom and freedom of information, are the founding principles for good governance, development and peace

Third, that new technology can provide enormous information benefits, but needs to be underpinned by measures that empower people to make use of it: quality education for all, universal access to information and knowledge, and respect for linguistic diversity.

A commitment to removing all obstacles to press freedom, to improving the conditions for independent and professional journalism, and to empowering citizens to engage in public debate is essential. On World Press Freedom Day 2008, UNESCO encourages its Member States to strengthen their efforts in this direction.

Koïchiro Matsuura

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