World Press Freedom Day United Nations Geneva

World Press Freedom Day
United Nations Geneva
3 May 2011

"Twenty years on from the Windhoek Declaration:
Freedom of the press in a changed world"

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Under this title the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Information Service and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization had invited to a joint seminar to discuss the current state of art of this inalienable right. They also wanted to look where we are now 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration - UNESCO 1991, when African journalists had laid down free press principles, which were adopted by the UN General Assembly and two years later declared into the World Press Freedom Day.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay opened a panel of speakers and spoke to all our hearts with a key note that stressed the courage to exercise the freedom of expression and press and underlined the interface between the role of the media and fundamental human rights. “Rarely has this interaction been as clearly demonstrated, on so many fronts, and in such a short space of time, as it has been in country after country during the so-called Arab Spring. The media – old and new, local and international – have been playing a vital role and also paying a heavy toll in the political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa over the first four months of 2011. The recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East have been all about human rights. economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights such as the right to genuine democracy, the right not to be persecuted by the state, and the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

Paying a heavy toll meant: four journalists being killed in Libya, two in Bahrein, one each in Yemen, Egypt and Tunesia.  Others have been subjected to torture and other forms of violence, have been intimidated, harassed, deported, arbitrarily detained and disappeared. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been at least 450 attacks on journalists in this region alone since the beginning of the year and this does not include latest heavy hands assaults on journalists and bloggers in Syria because of the total government imposed closure and silence…

Speaking on behalf of UNESCO, the UN agency to promote and protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the director of the Bureau of Field Coordination Morgens Schmidt, continued on the threat to those speaking the truth and deplored in particular the impunity which reigned around crimes committed to silence journalists. Only 20% of murder and killings have been ever brought to court. But he also stressed UNESCO’s unending efforts to dialogue with all of its 193 member states to promote press freedom, whether in North Korea, Myanmar or the UK and Switzerland.

Earlier at the opening of the session a short video had presented the greetings of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and her announcement of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize to jailed Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.. (His moving speech below)

Free- lance Journalist Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga (expert on Africa coverage) brought to life the technical development of the last twenty years when she desperately looked for a phone to dictate news to be conveyed and today’s real time instant transmissions. She covered armed conflicts in Africa (DRC, Liberia and since 2002 Côte d’Ivoire), struggled to interview heads of state and realizes now how access to new technologies is slowly accelerating democratic developments.

International Advocacy Director of Amnesty International Steve Crawshaw deplored that there has yet not been a Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Bahrein and Yemen, (as there was for Libya and Syria) where suppression of protests are equally violent and deadly…. He also recalled and compared the censorship of old autocratic regimes for example Russia with its state run news agency Izvestia (News) and Pravda (Truth) - no news in one and no truth in the other -  with today’s efforts of so many authorities to restrict free flow of information via the Internet, using increasingly refined legal and technical controls. Fear of the contagious Arab Spring virus has caught China with the world’s most sophisticated state censorship apparatus to initiate an unprecedented clamp down on journalists, human rights defenders and even artists. More than 30 of them are currently held incommunicado.

The ensuing discussion centred on the potential and challenges of the new media. Freedom of expression means an open space not only for the media, but for society as a whole. People are empowered to claim their rights in the public arena. Through the social media we all have become journalists in a way, without having necessarily the tools and ethics of real professionals. Some say the more the better for the truth to be heard. Already from John Milton’s writings in the 17th century the concept developed of the open market place of ideas, the idea that when people argue against each other, the good arguments will prevail.

Others rather want to have only proof clad facts. A former Reuters and BBC correspondent deplored the opinionated news coverage these days. According to Freedom House,  “more than two billion people have access to the Internet, and the once well defined journalistic lines between spectator and contributor, source and correspondent are blurring. This overwhelming number of active voices contributing to the dissemination of news –some with questionable intents or identity – has also demanded a re-evaluation of the profession of journalism itself, with some arguing that crowd-sourcing can muddle the quality and accuracy of news”…

But as CIVICUS who sees “clampdown is real” in civil society space, I am equally concerned about Freedom House’ “Flagged for Removal: Online Censorship on the Rise”. On this day of Freedom of Press, we salute all who through their courage and determination to speak the truth advanced democratic development and the wellbeing of ordinary people. As Navi Pillay said in her concluding remarks: “We must all work to ensure that the broadest possible plurality of voices is being heard”

Renate Bloem
UN Geneva

Cano World Press Freedom Prize
I would like to greet the honourable Director General of UNESCO, as well as the members of the Prize Jury for their efforts and for the honour they have bestowed upon me with the award of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
I feel sad and apologetic for not being able to draft a message worthy of the occasion and your gathering. As you may be aware, the Revolutionary Court in addition to sentencing me to six years' imprisonment, five years of exile and a lifetime ban on political, social and journalistic activity has also banned me forever from any writing and speaking. Therefore, any message by me would add to my suffering and that of my family.

Despite that restriction, I would like to make it clear that in the performance of my profession, I had no means but my pen and my speech and that in using those means, I never went beyond the narrow and limited confines of the Iranian government's laws and regulations. But, in violation of their own laws and regulations, they have imposed pain and suffering beyond my endurance -- pain and suffering resembling those of a person who is crucified for weeks or buried alive.
While in prison, I constantly strive to forgive, but I cannot forget.

Finally, in accepting this Prize which is in reality a recognition of all prisoners of opinion in my country and my imprisoned or exiled colleagues, I dedicate it to my family and in particular to my wife and children. In addition to the psychological pains of these two years, they have for the past ten years had to live with the dread of an expected "knock on the door." With every unexpected knock on the door, their fragile and innocent hearts were agitated.
I also dedicate this Prize to the mother of Sohrab Arabi* and all other heartbroken mothers whose sons never returned home. I dedicate it to all tearful mothers, sisters, daughters and the children who live with the pain of having their loved ones in prison.

For remembering us, God will remember and reward you.  

* On 12 July 2009, Iran's authorities informed the family of 19-year-old Sohrab Arabi that he had died of gunshot wounds to his heart -- 26 days after he had disappeared during a demonstration on 15 June. His mother, a member of the Mothers for Peace organization, had made numerous attempts to ascertain his whereabouts. The family was finally summoned to identify Sohrab among several photographs of bodies. Family members said it transpired that his body had arrived at the coroner's office five days after he first disappeared.  It is still unclear if he died in detention or during the demonstration. The delay in releasing the information on his unexplained death raised questions about the fates of dozens of others who had disappeared then. The case accordingly became a cause célèbre.



Picture:© NetNativeIranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi to receive 2011 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize


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