By Jaclyn Weintraub
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), continuously works to foster and encourage dialogue between the worlds various nations and diverse cultures. It does so in the hopes of promoting a discourse and debate within the realm of human rights. These human rights include freedom of expression, freedom to seek the truth and the freedom from violence and suppression. The sharing of information and the ability to voice concerns are also pillars of UNESCO’s efforts, and so UNESCO seeks to support and defend the freedoms of journalists within all nations. Journalists as the harbingers of discourse not only serve to inform and educate the populous, but are also the barometers of healthy and free speech.
The UN General Assembly first established World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) in 1993. The event is held annually on the 3rd of May, and this year’s WPFD marks the 20th anniversary of the event. WPFD seeks to remind us that while many nations enjoy a free and vocal press, there is still a substantial number of the world’s population that live with everyday censorship, routine suppression of information and occasional murder or other acts of violence against persons of the press. WPFD is also an event to encourage cooperation and facilitate solutions to these wrongs.
Last year UNESCO recognized the deaths of some 121 media professionals as unwarranted and unprosecuted murders, this is a dramatic rise from the previous years (62). Protecting the rights and lives of journalists has never been more important to UNESCO. Thus UNESCO created its, “United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issues of Impunity.” This plan aims to create a free and safe working environment for all media professionals while at the same time strengthening and fostering a peaceful democratic landscape internationally. This year’s theme, “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media,” focuses on the safety of journalists, issues of impunity and online safety.
Each year UNESCO awards the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to a recipient who has exemplified the outstanding dedication and courage it takes to defend and promote press freedom around the world. This year the prize will be awarded to imprisoned Ethiopian journalist, Reeyot Alemu. Alemu was arrested in June 2011 and is currently serving a five-year sentence for trumped up and vague charges as a result of her political and social works. Alemu has contributed to many independent publications on various political and social issues. She has been committed and tirelessly focused on the roots of poverty and gender inequality all the while facing an openly hostile Ethiopian government.
According to UNESCO research, every week 1 journalist dies while working in the field. These field work fatalities cannot simply be attributed to Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather according to UNESCO, some “95% of victims are local media workers covering local stories.” Unfortunately, violence against journalists often goes unpunished in many parts of the world. Corruption goes beyond violence, intimidation and suppression of journalists; corruption also allows governments both local and national to turn a blind eye. While acts of violence to journalists cause immediate damage to the democratic process, it is the fact that actions are being carried out with impunity that cause a far more dramatic and long lasting threat towards the democratic process.
Those who wish to subdue the press go about doing so often in a very public and brash fashion. Acting with impunity they feel free to threaten and obstruct journalist’s efforts to report and speak freely. Crimes against journalists are not simply committed and unsolved, but rather efforts of justice are directly thwarted with pardons and inaction. The result for this inaction to protect the press is a press who is afraid to report. Self-censorship for the sake of personal safety causes a hindering of public awareness with an under reporting of various social, political, environmental and human rights issues. When journalists on the local level are afraid to report, the entire democratic process is threatened.
With the advent of smart phones and blogs, ‘citizen journalists’ have moved from a position of audience to a contributor to discourse. Online news publications, blogs, forums and websites have helped to facilitate a fast moving and easily accessible form of media. Commonly working outside the traditional mainstream media, these online journalists can circumnavigate traditional outlets of television and newspaper. However, just because this new form of media exists online does not simply mean they are free from suppression and violence. Thus online safety has become a natural extension of freedom of the press. Standards for safety and awareness for journalists, on all platforms need to be adjusted and expanded to protect those operating online.
This year’s conference marks the first time for the event being held in a Central American country. Despite the various challenges of its neighbors, Costa Rica has remained a shinning example of political tolerance, freedom of the press and a healthy peaceful democracy. In fact, a recent report by the NGO “Reports Without Borders,” found Costa Rica to have the freest press in Latin America.
Latin America as a whole has had its problems with political unrest; coups, rebellions, sporadic violence, questionable police practices, rigged or questionable elections as well as suppression of the press, which have all blemished the region. However, Costa Rica has managed to not only overcome these problems but to continually better itself. Costa Rica has steadily developed economically while reaming free and democratic, proving that neither form of progress is mutually exclusive. Currently, Costa Rica ranks 18th of 179 countries in terms of fundamental right and freedom of the press, rising one spot higher than it held last year. Having this conference in Costa Rica marks a continuing and positive trend for free speech in the region. And so, UNESCO hopes that this years WPFD can build upon Costa Rica’s success and example, both for Latin America and the world as a whole.