15 MAY 2011


Even though the media landscape had been transformed "beyond recognition" in the 20 years since the Windhoek Declaration on freedom of expression, it remained critical to defend that fundamental right, top United Nations officials said during an observance of World Press Freedom Day on 4 May at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

"The Internet, social media and blog posts -- these are among the tools being used so creatively, especially by the vanguard of young people, to help spur change in their societies," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the opening of the special briefing and panel discussion on the theme "Twenty-first century media: New frontiers, new barriers", co-organized by the Department of Public Information and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"Alongside these benefits stand old challenges," Mr. Ban continued, adding that some Governments had simply extended to the new media the censorship that they already practised against the more traditional forms. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he noted, at least six journalists working primarily online had been killed in 2010, and in 2008, for the first time, more online reporters were in jail than their counterparts in the traditional media.

Recalling the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, he said it had been released amid the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of media restrictions in Eastern Europe by African journalists who had worked with UNESCO to bring about similar advances on their own continent. It emphasized the importance of an independent press for the development and preservation of democracy and economic development, he said, describing the Declaration as the inspiration behind the General Assembly’s establishment of the observance.

Welcoming the participants, Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said it was against that backdrop of change that African journalists had pushed for an independent and pluralistic media. They had called for the removal of economic and political pressures on the news media; for new laws that would allow representative media associations to exist; and for the release of jailed journalists. These days it was the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East organizing and demanding -- including through the use of new media -- greater freedoms and a stake in how they should be governed. That subject would be explored later by the panel of experts from the region and beyond.

Also attending the occasion were the Heads of respective leaderships of the General Assembly, the Committee on Information and the United Nations Correspondents Association, who all spoke of the urgent need to protect journalists in the new media environment.

Unfortunately, as all speakers noted, the Declaration’s goals were far from being achieved. Over the past decade, more than 500 journalists had lost their lives in pursuit of their profession, according to a joint statement issued by Secretary-General Ban, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sixty killings had been reported from around the world in 2010 alone, and every week brought more reports of journalists and bloggers suffering intimidation and violence.

Ms. Bokova, delivering a separate statement at the event, said protecting press freedom was a core mission of her agency and the United Nations as a whole, recalling that yesterday she had awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize to imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi. She acknowledged that due to the explosion of new media, all questions of freedom and responsibility must be explored in depth, noting: "We are entering a new world of expression, information and dialogue." However, the Windhoek Declaration must remain the starting point, she stressed, calling on all Governments to join with the United Nations in the struggle to guarantee freedom of expression in print, on the airwaves and online.

Zahir Tanin ( Afghanistan), Acting President of the General Assembly, said the Assembly was seized with the promotion of the fundamental values of the United Nations Charter, including freedom of expression. "There can be neither security nor development unless human rights are respected," he emphasized. "The credibility of the international community is at stake in ensuring that these rights are upheld and that human rights violations do not go unpunished." There was no question that the physical well-being of reporters and citizens attempting to relay information around the world must be better respected, he continued, paying tribute to all media organizations, civil society groups and individuals who devoted their energies and lives to ensuring that all people were educated, informed and living in peace.

Eduardo Ulibarri ( Costa Rica), Chair of the Committee on Information, said the freedoms of thought, association, press and expression formed a whole that was fundamental to human dignity. When flows of information were limited, all citizens suffered, he noted, emphasizing that, for freedom of information to flourish fully, not only must it break repressive political barriers, it must also surmount educational and economic barriers. "Free, pluralistic communication belongs to all citizens; it should not be denied to anybody," he said, calling for greater efforts to overcome the technological barriers depriving many in developing countries of the benefits. In the era of new media, professional, responsible outlets continued to play an indispensable role, he stressed.

Finally, Giampaolo Pioli, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association, read out the names of 16 journalists killed in 2011, noting also that hundreds of other journalists, photographers and bloggers were being held in prison. The number of journalists killed continued to rise, with the new media increasing the targets of repression. World Press Freedom Day should not only be a day of remembrance, but also one of struggle around the world to end the repression of journalists and all those working to relay information, he said.

The opening of the observance was followed by a panel discussion on current challenges to media freedom. Moderated by Janis Karklins, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, it featured opening statements by Wilfried Emvula, Permanent Representative of Namibia, and Thierry Taponier, brother of missing journalist Stephane Taponier.

Panelists included Gwen Lister, Editor of The Namibian newspaper and a political journalist who opposed apartheid; Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known Egyptian blogger; Sanja Tatic Kelly, senior researcher and editor at Freedom House; Graham Usher, an author and journalist who has covered the Middle East extensively; and Abderrahim Foukara, head of Al-Jazeera’s United States operations.