May 2, 2012 ·0 Comments
New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies
The World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was jointly established in 1991 by UNESCO and the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), in the framework of a conference held in Windhoek, Namibia. The conference, which gave us the Windhoek Declaration, emphasized the idea that press freedom should be understood as necessitating pluralism and independence for the mass media at large.
Since then, the World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated every year on 3 May, and the relevance of these ideas is underlined by democratic events during 2011. In addition to the annual WPFD celebration, UNESCO’s Executive Board also created the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 1997. Each year, the prize is given to a person, an organization or an institution that has dedicated its activities to promote or defend press freedom anywhere in the world.
More than two decades after the Windhoek conference, WPFD continues to resonate in the defense of media freedom. This year, we all have been encouraged by the unprecedented global socio-political democratic developments in which various media played an important part, even if not to the extent where some have spoken about the “social media revolution”. Indeed, many factors came into play with the events taking place, particularly in the Arab states, including underlying economic woes and political suppression, which elicited mass organization especially by young people. However, we cannot deny the fact that the freedom to harness the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and especially those of new media played a significant role, even while often being in conjunction with satellite television. This has reaffirmed what the WPFD had been championing for the past twenty years—media freedom is part of the package of fundamental rights for which people will strive.
The confluence of press freedom and freedom of expression, through various traditional as well as new media, has given rise to an unprecedented level of media freedom. It is helping to enable civil society, young people and communities to bring about massive social and political transformations. Media freedom entails the right of any person to freedom of opinion and expression on a public basis, which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact those social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? ICT (like text messaging) and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.
This newfound media freedom is promising to transform societies in ways perhaps unimaginable only a year ago. It has enabled the emergence of new ways to communicate, to share information and knowledge, and for people to widen their sense of participation, identity and belonging. Media freedom, including online freedom, also plays a dynamic role in the economic transformation of society. Indeed, it is an incentive for foreign companies and private investments. Companies are much more disposed to have long term business interest in countries where media freedom is respected. It is necessary to ensure the transparency of public information, including public spending, so as to curb corruption. Public information is rightfully common public goods, with the government acting as its caretaker, and hence should be made easily and readily available – including via social media, cellphones and the Internet.
Yet, media freedom is fragile, and it is also not yet within the reach of everyone. While the enabling environment for true media freedom is improving, the harsh reality is that many in the world still do not have access to basic communication technology. Furthermore, as more reporting is transmitted online, more and more online journalists including bloggers are being harnessed, attacked and even killed for their work. UNESCO has dedicated a webpage, UNESCO Remembers Assassinated Journalists, to remember the journalists who were murdered. Lastly, States have a responsibility to ensure that national laws on freedom of expression are in accordance with internationally accepted principles as laid out in the Windhoek Declaration and UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators, which are both documents that they have endorsed.
By goth Mohamed