[intro]May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day and this year an innovative collaboration between the UN and Google aims to get everyone talking. Guy Berger is UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, based in Paris. This article is an exclusive commission for The Journalist.[/intro]
Press freedom used to be mainly about the male-dominated media; nowadays it’s about everyone who expresses themselves to a public – men and women, girls and boys. So everyone has an interest in keeping speech free – especially public speech. Most people on Facebook aren’t doing journalism, but they still rely on the freedom to publish. This makes them natural allies of anyone who is doing journalism.
Social Media Campaign
This year, UNESCO, in collaboration with Google, is launching a global social media campaign for WPFD. You can tweet your answer to the question “How Can Journalism Thrive?” using the hashtags #WPFD2015 plus #KeepSpeechFree.
UNESCO is also asking people to let them know in our native languages how we would translate “#KeepSpeechFree around the globe.
What makes journalism special is that it is public communication in the public interest:
- Journalism can be light and trigger laughter, but it’s not the entertainment industry.
- It’s about fact. Not fiction. Neither is it gossip, nor what you had for lunch.
- It can be opinion – but informed comment, not mere personal prejudice or simply sounding off.
The point is that journalism is what supplies the reliable information needed by every person to navigate life’s choppy waters.
Undermining Public Interest
Press freedom is especially important for journalism. Because, sadly, there are people who seek to suppress journalism. They don’t want exposure of their particular interests that undermine the public interest. They are people who are corrupt, racist, xenophobic, sexist or violent and who would rather smash the light bulb than be seen in the limelight.
This is why it’s so important to protect journalism. Most of it is done by the news media, but much is also contributed by individuals using social media.
Safety of journalists concerns every person. Intimidation and attacks may start with journalism, but they also threaten all other communications as well.
So we’re talking a continuum of freedom for a range of expressions. It’s vital for the public to cherish this hard-won right.
It’s not an absolute right. No one can be allowed to incite attacks on immigrants, for example.
But any limitations need to be highly exceptional, and they should be specified in a law rather than be arbitrarily applied. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adds that any limitations have to be shown as necessary within a democracy, and that they must conform to one of only a few legitimate reasons – like the rights of others to safety or dignity.
A Protective Roof
For the rest, the default setting is free speech. It’s the foundation, on which press freedom represents the doors and windows. On top, constituting the protective roof and visible from afar, is journalism.
It takes a village to raise a child, and a global village to create the conditions for journalism.
Luckily World Press Freedom Day is a chance to stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. It was back in 1993 that the UN General Assembly declared 3 May as a day to celebrate our right to press freedom. The nearly 200 countries represented in the General Assembly chose that date as the anniversary of a key meeting in Namibia by independent African journalists in 1991.
Thanks to those journalists there, who produced the historic Windhoek Declaration on a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press, we have clear insight today. We know therefore that press freedom rests on:
- Freedom for expression, without prior censorship or gate keeping.
- A diverse range of media platforms (including social media, community media, and independent public service broadcasting) – as opposed to being sewn up by governments, corporate monopolies or media barons.
- Independence for the integrity of journalism – so that its practitioners follow only professional standards, and are not slaves to political or commercial purposes.
And, as entrenched in UNESCO’s more recent study on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, press freedom must also mean equal opportunities for women in making the news.
If we want the best journalism that society deserves, it is these elements we have to put in place. And it’s because they all depend on the right to freedom of expression, that’s why 3 May 2015 is the day of hashtag #Keepspeechfree
Worldwide, people are using its equivalents like Arabic – #ليبقَ_التعبيرُ_حراً; Chinese: # 使言论自由; French: #LibreParole or Russian: #немолчи.
Here’s a local opportunity – to contribute the hashtag in the mother tongue of all who live in South Africa, whatever our origins.
If you’re interested in what the online world thinks about World Press Freedom Day, on 3 May 2015, keep your eyes on the hashtag #keepspeechfree.
Look out for ideas about UNESCO’s global theme for World Press Freedom Day 2015: “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Media Safety in the Digital Age”.
The right to freedom of expression, and the linked right to press freedom, are universal and inalienable rights belonging to each of us.
Guy Berger is South African and heads one of the most senior international positions dealing with world press freedom. We are honoured.