On World Press Freedom Day, Secretary-General Urges Creation of Safe Environment So Journalists across All Media Can Do their Jobs

from UN General Assembly
Published on 02 May 2013 View Original


World Press Freedom Day

General Assembly President, Under-Secretary-General, UNESCO Speak; Panel Considers Ways to Strengthen Press Freedom, Combat Impunity for Attacks

The increasing violence across the world against traditional and new media journalists alike undermined the very foundation of democratic societies, good governance, freedom of expression, and the right to receive and impart information and ideas, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said top United Nations officials and journalists today during an observance of the twentieth anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.

If there were any questions why World Press Freedom Day was observed, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his opening remarks, one only had to look at the “grim catalogues” on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website of murders of journalists who had been killed for doing their jobs.

Those incidents spanned the globe, he said, noting the reporter in the Middle East shot dead by a sniper; the assassination of a radio manager in Latin America; the fatal rebel attack of a radio announcer in Africa; and in Europe, a journalist finally succumbed to the wounds he suffered in a beating years earlier that left him infirm and unable to speak.

Such targeting, he said, went beyond traditional media outlets, and now included social media, blogs and citizen-led reporting, with cyber-attacks and legislative manoeuvres being used as tools of coercion. Journalists were also being detained, many languishing for years in “brutal conditions” as a result of sham trials and trumped-up charges.

He strongly condemned all such attacks and repression, voicing concern that many perpetrators were going unpunished. Freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information and ideas was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said, noting also the recently adopted implementation strategy for the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

But, more could be done, he stated, including greater protection of the freedom of press through the rule of law. In that, he urged all stakeholders to do translate the Action Plan into actions on the ground to help create a safer environment for the press, and he underscored that all journalists, across all media, must be able to do their jobs, as “when it is safe to speak, the whole world benefits”.

Along those lines, General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić said that, indeed, the Human Right Declaration affirmed that seeking and receiving information through any media regardless of frontiers was a right. Now, more than ever, he said, ensuring accuracy of information was crucial. In an increasingly digitalized world, it was all too simple to transform gossip and speculation into news. What was now communicated through a news wire had the potential to become go down as history, he cautioned.

He hailed journalism as a noble calling, noting that in every society the press had the potential to present an objective portrait of a nation and hold Governments, companies and individuals accountable, thereby advancing the common good of society. By virtue of their commitment, journalists put themselves in harms way to perform their profession, and for that reason, they deserved “full solidarity” to keep them safe.

The findings of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report, which stated 200 members of the press had been killed in 2012, including 41 in Syria and 18 in Somalia, were alarming, he said, paying tribute to the brave men and women who gave their life to a very important cause.

He pledged his and the General Assembly’s commitment to end that violence so as to allow journalists to practise their profession without fear or danger. The Assembly, viewed as the ultimate instrument of democracy in the twenty-first century, understood that protecting journalists was a prerequisite to “staying on the right side of history”.

Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal underscored that such freedom offered the public space to voice concerns and aspirations, allowed truths to be unearthed and ensured a country’s people reliable information from multiple sources. Thus, journalists and media workers should not have to jeopardize their safety in their efforts to “serve the information needs of their societies”.

The focus of the Day, he said, would be on ensuring the safety of journalists to do their work, off and online. However, it was evident that media workers were not safe, with attacks against journalist becoming an “all-too common phenomenon”. Such circumstances were resulting in self-censorship across societies and the erosion of the public trust in the judicial systems. Further, it emboldened those who used violence against journalists.

The meeting’s panel and round table, he continued, would address how the international community could strengthen press freedom through the promotion of a safe media environment. Such actions would not only take steps to combat impunity, but enable journalists to carry out their duties.

The contents of public information and communications, said Lyutha al-Mughairy, Chairperson of the Committee on Information, should be placed at the heart of the strategic management of the United Nations. The Committee believed that the primary mission of the Department of Public Information was to provide, through its outreach activities, accurate, comprehensive, balanced, and relevant information to the public on the tasks and responsibilities of the United Nations.

She said the Committee remained deeply concerned by the disparities existing between developed and developing countries and the consequences arising from those disparities. It was critical to support practical training programmes for broadcasters and journalists from public, private and other media in developing countries, she said, underlining the need to rectify the growing imbalance in the current process of development of information and communications technologies.

She also underlined the relevancy of making appropriate use of all official languages of the United Nations with the aim of eliminating the disparity between the use of English and the use of the five other official languages. That could strengthen communications capacities and potentially improve media infrastructure and communications technologies in developing countries, especially in the areas of training and in the dissemination of information.

Also addressing the meeting was Philippe Kridelka, Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York. Alarmed that 9 out of 10 cases of crimes against journalists, media workers and social media producers went unpunished, he stated: “This cannot stand.” Violence and impunity undermined basic rights and freedoms, eroded public faith in the rule of law, encouraged self-censorship and poisoned governance. As the United Nations agency with the mandate to promote and protect freedom of expression, UNESCO stood up for journalists, media workers and social media producers across the world.

He stressed the importance for the Internet to become a global public resource. He also highlighted UNESCO’s work with the authorities in Tunisia, Myanmar and Egypt to strengthen media freedoms through sector-wide reform, support to journalism education and pre-electoral assistance. In addition, the organization was developing the legal frameworks necessary for free speech in Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and it was promoting the quality of journalism in conflict situations and following natural disasters, such as in Haiti, in Pakistan and in Iraq.

Coordinated by UNESCO, the United Nations Plan of Action set clear principles, objectives and measures to be taken across the United Nations system and with Member States and the civil society, he said, adding that the goal was clear — “to ensure every journalist can do his or her job safely and no crime goes unpunished”. Freedom of expression must be respected equally in the “real” and the “digital” worlds, where news was increasingly produced and consumed, he said.

Emphasizing that the so-called “Fourth Estate” was the guardian of free expression, Pamela Falk, President of the United Nations Correspondents Associations said it shone the light on injustice and asked the tough questions of the powerful. However, 2012 had been the deadliest year for reporters, with 121 killed in the line of duty. Imprisonment was also at a record high, with 200 journalists jailed by those in power seeking to silence their critics. That was a 25 per cent increase from the previous year. Additionally, female journalists were subjected to mass assault and rape, and thousands of reporters were injured in war zones.

As for “what to do”, she said that international law held the key. She pointed in particular to the Declaration’s article 19, which specifically states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression […] regardless of frontiers”. The meaning of “frontiers” included geographic and political boundaries, she said, adding the relevance of that phrase to the Internet, which had no frontiers. If Facebook members were members of a country, the nation would be the third largest in the world. There were also more than 200 million blogs in dozens of languages.

However, even with wide-ranging media outlets participating in reporting, journalists still needed to sort the truth through investigative and balanced reporting. “They run towards the danger,” she said, risking their lives to pursue the truth. And, more could be done to protect them, urging the full implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the safety of journalists.