About the Day
Every year, May 3rd is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991. This, in turn, was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.
It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom – a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors, and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.
It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.
May 3rd acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.
Themes for 2017
At a time described by some as critical for journalism, World Press Freedom Day 2017 will focus on why it is vital to strengthen free and quality journalism to enable the media to effectively contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16
Specifically, the interrelationships between freedom of expression, justice for all and the rule of law, peace, and inclusiveness will be explored.
Justice for all as a prerequisite for freedom of expression and sustainable development
The rule of law forms an integral part of a democratic and inclusive society. It protects fundamental freedoms and applies universally to each individual and entity. Weak institutions, a weak judiciary, and lack of access to justice greatly impede sustainable development. Without a well-functioning legal and regulatory environment, the public loses confidence in the democratic process and no longer invests in its sustainable future.
Only when media are free, independent and pluralistic can they ensure that the rule of law is applied and respected in full. Conversely, only a legal framework that safeguards freedom of expression and freedom of information allows for such a media sector to emerge. Free media and an independent, effective judiciary play a mutually reinforcing role as pillars of democracy.
Journalists are not only major users of the cherished right to freedom of expression but also symbols of the extent to which a society tolerates and/or promotes freedom of expression. The current state of safety of journalists worldwide is discouraging: over the course of the last decade, 827 journalists and media workers have been killed. Even more alarming is the fact that in less than one out of ten cases the perpetrators have been caught. Championed by UNESCO since 2012, the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity serves as the holistic multi-stakeholder platform on which these complex issues are tackled. Major progress has been made on the global normative front, most notably on international and regional fora, although much more remains to be done.
Judicial systems worldwide need to be strengthened with a key focus on protecting freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. The call of the 2030 Development Agenda for universal justice is relevant to all elements of the three “P” approach in ensuring a safe media environment: Prevention of violence against media; Protection of journalists in danger; and Prosecution of perpetrators of crimes committed against media professionals.
The media often play a central role in conflict and crisis situations. Independent, objective, neutral media can help defuse tension, promote dialogue, and contain conflicts. Conversely, biased and untrue reporting can exacerbate violence. When misused for propaganda purposes, the media can contribute to inciting hatred and spreading rumors. Moreover, in situations of armed conflict and disaster, the risks faced by journalists are significantly multiplied. An additional threat to peace and security, human rights, and justice is the spread of violent extremism catalyzed by terrorist and extremist groups. These groups have used social media as a tool for the global and real-time communication of intolerant messages.
The digital era has enhanced opportunities for access to information, the creation and sharing of knowledge, facilitating exchange as well as intercultural dialogue. However, the rise of online hate speech shows that digital technologies also carry with them a number of challenges. One of these is striking the right balance between freedom of expression online and respect for equality and human dignity. Countering hate speech and violent extremism online calls for a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of tension and division within societies. The media can provide a platform for a multitude of voices and perspectives that can help strengthen tolerance, dialogue, and critical thinking. They can also offer counter-narratives to challenge the ideas promoted in violent extremism narratives. Finally, countering extremist narratives comes hand in hand with empowering media users with the skills needed to navigate the Internet, and interpret, reject and react to hateful and inciting messages.
Freedom of expression and freedom of information foster more inclusive societies
Enabled by digital technologies, public participation in the media has allowed for a democratization of narrative and intercultural dialogue. However, the increased supply and demand of information has laid bare the role of internet intermediaries, the compromise of the confidentiality of sources, the risks in terms of digital safety faced by journalists, the rise of online hate speech, and the digital divide. The large discrepancy of access to information both between and within countries, as well as between men and women, demonstrates that the Information Age duly supplied the tools but not the envisioned the fully connected world. In order for freedom of expression to be universally applied and for sustainable development to thrive, information must become available to all without restrictions. Digital illiteracy is another obstacle in this regard.
By enabling the empowerment of citizens, freedom of information is a cornerstone of participatory democracy. It also plays an essential role in promoting accountable and effective institutions which support the rule of law.
Media are important actors in promoting social inclusion. Their potential to promote dialogue, reflect the diversity of opinions and perspectives in society, and challenge stereotypes and misrepresentations, is to be encouraged. Supporting pluralism and gender equality in the media is central to this process.
UNESCO’s concept of Internet Universality proposes four principles for an inclusive Internet that can contribute to the development of Knowledge Societies as foundations for sustainable development: Human Rights, Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder participation.
Only an inclusive society, facilitated by independent and pluralistic media and a safe media environment where the free flow of information is fostered, provides the necessary conditions to achieve a better future for all.
See Cartoons for Peace on Freedom of the Press