15 MAY 2011


This year's World Press Freedom Day was invigorated with a clearly dynamic involvement by UNESCO's new Director General, Irina Bokova. In a successful strategic plan, she stretched out from Paris to Washington, New York across the globe to Windhoek, Namibia, when the first regional conference on free and varied press was held exactly twenty years ago.

An experienced diplomat, professional journalist, and an active proponent of human development, Ms. Bokova regained for that special day its place in the mainstream of the attention not only of international officialdom but also amongst influential media and civil society groups. She made a point of remembering assassinated reporters while highlighting the need to avert similar tragedies. She recognized the impact of print and radio-visual media, while spotting the urgency of recognizing swiftly emerging communications technology. What made the difference was the warmth of her personal presence and sharp focus of her presentation.

For the first time, a UNESCO Director General celebrated that Day, not only in Place de Fontenoy, Paris, but by moving to Washington, D.C., the capital of a major country that once (wrongfully and unwisely) left UNESCO. From 1 - 3 May, an impressive conference on "21st Century, New Frontiers, New Barriers," was held at Newseum, a museum devoted to history of the press and freedom of expression worldwide. UNESCO teamed with the U.S. State Department, the Knight Foundation, and private donors to gather a distinguished group drawn from varied cultural and geographical media backgrounds. New digital media practitioners like Wael Abbas of Egypt, print media stars like U.S.'s Bob Woodward, and experienced authors like David Ottaway. There were accomplished communicators from Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Haiti (represented by our former colleague Spokeswoman Michèle Montas), France, Columbia, Russia, Romania, Malaysia, Thailand, U.K., India, Pakistan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Tunisia, Thailand, Nigeria, Belarus, Mexico, Iran, Morocco, Namibia, Israel, Somalia, Senegal, Yemen, and others.

In New York, at U.N. Headquarters, on 4 May, Ms. Bokova joined Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other senior officials in launching another gathering that highlighted the need to remain actively vigilant in protecting freedom of expression, despite advancement in media communication links. (See other relevant headlines.)

UNESCO field offices worked together with U.N. Information Centres around the world to ensure the widest possible circulation of international events and mobilization of media participation in local communications. For example, the World Freedom Press Prize for 2011, selected by an independent body, and given to Ahmad Zeidabadi, received worthwhile attention, particularly the emotional statement made by the imprisoned journalist (see another headline).

Also, for the first time, a joint message on that particular day was issued by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

An effective team that assisted in the invigorated commemoration included our former UN/DPI colleague Eric Falt who is now UNESCO Assistant Direct General for External Relations, and Janis Karklins, Assistant Director General for Communications and Information who moderated the New York media discussion.