15 MAY 2010


The welcome participation of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave added significance to the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The event was arranged by the team led by Eric Falt, Director in the Department of Public Information (DPI) -- who will be moving to join UNESCO in Paris next September. Another DPI Director, Paula Rofolo, also participated. A number of Non-Government Organisations (NGO) filled temporary Conference Room number 2 in the transitional building. Actually, it was a weekly NGO briefing turned into a high-level gathering. The reason it wasn't held on the actual date of 3 May would require an elaborate response. As would why the stress only on the Wyndhoek Declaration rather than the Santiago Declaration, which actually took the final decision to propose the International Day. Perhaps the current DPI leadership, meaning Asakasan, would need a further briefing on the background, or at least on the need to stress the historic role of the Department that placed International Day on the global agenda with persistent effort and great sacrifice.

Anyway, statements by the Secretary General and other participants highlighted the relevance of the occasion:

"Governments, civil society and people around the world must stand up not only for freedom of the press but also for the public’s right to know," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said."People have a right to information that affects their lives," Mr. Ban told the event, organized annually by the Department of Public Information for members of the press, representatives of non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders. "Freedom of information: the right to know" is the theme of this year’s observance.

The good news about the right to know was a global trend towards new laws that recognized the universal right to publicly held information, the Secretary-General said, noting, however, that those laws did not always translate into action. Around the world, Governments and others with power used censorship, intimidation, financial constraints and even murder to obstruct the freedom of the press and the right to know, he said, stressing that all Governments had a duty to protect those working in the media and to provide access to the information that people required.

Participants in this morning’s event observed a minute of silence in honour of those who had given their lives defending the right of people everywhere to be informed. It was noted that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had condemned the killings of 77 journalists in the course of 2009.

The event also featured presentations by Abdalmahmood Mohamad (Sudan), Vice-President of the General Assembly, who spoke on behalf of Assembly President Ali Abdussalam Treki (Libya); Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima (Cape Verde), Chairperson of the Committee on Information; Giampaolo Pioli, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA); and Christine Alfsen, Director of UNESCO’s New York Office.

Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, introduced the speakers, noting that freedom of the press was a basic principle of the United Nations and was enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Mohamad said press freedom should be marked every day because the press was a critical partner in the quest for peace, development and good governance. "Freedom of information is key to a better tomorrow," he added.

Mr. Lima emphasized the importance of maintaining vigilance regarding freedom of information, even if new media seemed to provide greater access to information and wireless phones reached a large portion of the African populace. It was very easy to abuse new media for purposes of repression and intolerance, he warned, noting that, in Africa, such problems were a symptom of "illness in our democracies" requiring a positive force for change.

For that reason, he continued, it was extremely important to get more Internet access in developing countries and for more information to be made available in more languages on the United Nations website, as well as through the Organization’s information centres. He acknowledged the Public Information Department’s hard work in that area, but said much more remained to be done.

Mr. Pioli said the press must be even more vigilant in defending the right to know, given that attacks on press freedom were increasing every day, in democracies as well as dictatorships.

Ms. Alfsen announced that this year’s World Press Freedom Prize, awarded in the name of Guillermo Cano, a Colombian newspaper publisher assassinated for denouncing drug barons, would go to Chilean journalist Mónica González, who had advocated against the former dictatorship in her country.

She said this year’s theme focused on the basic role of the media, which related to information for empowerment. "In a context where the international community has to intervene more frequently in post-conflict situations, this task has never been more important," she stressed.

Following those presentations, Mr. Akasaka presided over a panel discussion on press freedom in South-East Asia. Panellists included Timothy Carney, former head of the United Nations Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC); Clothilde Le Coz, Director of Reporters without Borders in Washington, D.C.; M.P. Nunan, a freelance broadcast journalist active in the region; and Dini Djalal, a correspondent for Tempo magazine.

Panellists noted that journalists were fighting for press freedom all over South-East Asia, many of them risking their lives to combat impunity, censorship and abuse of power. The political party-connected massacre of journalists in the Philippines last November was only the worst recent example, they said. Ms. Le Coz said the region ranked very low in her organization’s comparative evaluations of press freedom, particularly in respect of the Internet. Bloggers and Internet reporters were in jail and thousands of websites had been blocked, she added. Stressing that journalists must be defended, the panellists pointed out that international intervention in their plight was often very effective.