Ivor Gaber reflects on United Nations World Press Freedom Day
Posted on behalf of: School of Media, Arts and Humanities
Last updated: Monday, 10 May 2021
On Monday 3 May the world marked United Nations World Press Freedom Day. There are many such events in the UN calendar, but this is perhaps one of the most important.
As we all know too well, the world has faced, and is facing, a global pandemic and although medical and public health measures are the key components in combatting Covid-19, it has become increasingly clear that information, and its free flow, also has a vital role to play. It is essential that information about how people can keep themselves safe, about testing and quarantining, and the importance of vaccination, is accurate and available.
This was emphasised by Audrey Azulay, the Director General of UNESCO (the UN body that leads on media freedom issues) in her message marking the day when she noted: "The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, ‘Information as a Public Good’, underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content”.
However, as we know too well there have been, and still are, individuals, groups, and even governments that, for one reason or another, have seen it in their interest to try and disseminate false and misleading information about these vital topics, in other words – ‘fake news’.
In previous years World Press Freedom Day has focused on the basic issues of the free flow of information, the safety of journalists, and the importance of independent media. While these remain the key long-term issues, in the current climate fake news has in itself become a threat to journalists; swirling along on the ever-growing tide of social media, fake news is used to challenge the credibility and safety of journalists trying to report matters that some would rather were not reported.
World Press Freedom Day this year was held in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where 30 years ago the first such day was held and where the Windhoek Declaration that set out the importance of media freedom in Africa specifically, and the world in general, was launched.
10 years ago the United Nations launched its own plan of action for the safety of journalists. It was an initiative that began at UNESCO when, representing the UK, I was able to tell delegates meeting in Paris that for too long the world community had only paid lip service to the issue of journalism safety. At the time there was growing concern about the number of journalists being deliberately targeted by soldiers, police, and security forces, usually in areas of conflict, and where governments would all too frequently turn a blind eye to these killings, or worse still encourage them. Hence the plan involved not just trying to increase the protection of journalists worldwide but also sought to tackle this issue of impunity.
Last year, as part of the plan of action, academics from Sussex were involved in overseeing a UNESCO project which worked with civil servants, police, and the judiciary in Pakistan and Afghanistan to increase awareness of the importance of both protecting journalists and ensuring that those who threatened or killed them were not immune from prosecution.
The most recent trend in terms of journalists’ safety is many of the threats are now coming, not so much from security forces as such but from corrupt politicians, authoritarian governments, criminal gangs, and others who see a free media as undermining their own activities. The online environment has made it particularly easy to harass and threaten journalists in an attempt to silence them.
As an advisor to the UK Government’s National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, I can report that online harassment isn’t just an issue affecting journalists in some far away country. Journalists in the UK are, daily, being abused and threatened online which is why World Press Freedom Day, and all it represents, is important for us all.
Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at Sussex and represents the UK at UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.
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