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MEDIA: Press Freedom Day to Focus on Threats

A. D. McKenzie

PARIS, Apr 19 2010 (IPS) - “Please remember that we know where your child goes to school.”

French memorial to slain reporters at Bayeux, France. Credit: Town of Bayeux

French memorial to slain reporters at Bayeux, France. Credit: Town of Bayeux

These words, spoken quietly over the telephone, were just one recent attempt to prevent a Southern Europe-based editor from printing a certain story, according to sources at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In addition to such veiled threats, journalists run the risk of harassment, detention, arrest, assault and even murder in many countries, says the Paris-based agency, which would like governments to do something about the situation.

Ahead of its annual conference on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, UNESCO is calling on its member states to “reaffirm and implement their international commitments to guarantee and promote freedom of information”.

“Far too many journalists exercise their profession in an environment where restrictions on information are the norm, where dealing with pressure, harassment intimidation or even physical assault are all in a day’s work,” says UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova.

“I call on governments, civil society, the news media and individuals everywhere to join forces with UNESCO in promoting freedom of information all over the world,” she said in a statement.


This appeal, however, may be a hard sell in countries that routinely detain media workers or that look the other way when journalists are attacked as they carry out their work.

In 2009, some 77 journalists were killed, making the year one of the most dangerous for the media, according to official reports. So far this year, 22 journalists and other media workers (including cameramen, fixers and drivers) have been struck down, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

“It’s turning out to be another bloody year for media professionals,” said Ernest Sagaga, IFJ’s human rights and information officer.

UNESCO says that one of the main issues affecting the protection of journalists is the impunity that their killers enjoy in some regions.

Mogens Schmidt, the agency’s deputy assistant director-general for the communication and information sector, told IPS that “more than 70 percent of the culprits” have not been brought to trial.

“Journalism is a lifeblood of democracy,” he said. “So how can you ensure fundamental freedoms if journalists cannot practice their profession freely?”

In 2008, UNESCO requested information from 28 countries about their judicial follow-up of the killings of journalists during 2006-2007, and only 13 provided detailed information. Nearly all of the investigations were described as “on-going”. There had been two convictions.

“Member states must… take a firm stance to prevent the murders of journalists and to ensure that the perpetrators of crimes and acts of violence against media professionals and associated personnel are duly prosecuted,” the agency said in its related report.

The UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference, which this year is being held in Brisbane, Australia, May 2 -3, has as its theme “freedom of information, the right to know”. It will examine how access to information affects democracy, among other issues, and will also focus on the experiences of journalists who face official repression as they try to do their job.

Such repression may include raids on media offices, repeated arrests, interrogation, the cutting of broadcast signals and the apparent sanctioning or cover-up of killings.

The countries that carry out these acts include many UNESCO member states, signatories of the 2007 Medellin Declaration which says that “press freedom can only be enjoyed when media professionals are free from intimidation, pressure and coercion”.

Schmidt acknowledges that it is difficult to discuss freedom of information with certain governments, but he said that UNESCO was having results through “capacity building” and silent diplomacy.

“The fact that we serve as a go-between can be a way of creating more space for independent media,” he told IPS. “The whole awareness-raising work is one side of the issue. The other is working with member states.”

UNESCO says it is the only UN agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom because of its constitution.

“By making governments, parliamentarians and other decision-makers aware of the need to guarantee free expression, UNESCO promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press as a basic human right”, the agency says.

To emphasise this right, the agency has awarded an annual Press Freedom Prize since 1997. This year’s prize goes to Chilean journalist Mónica González Mujica, a “heroine of the struggle against dictatorship in her country”, according to UNESCO.

González has been imprisoned and tortured as a result of her investigative reporting, but has continued working as a journalist. She is director of the Center of Journalism and Investigation in Santiago.

She will receive the 25,000 US dollars prize from UNESCO’s Bokova at the conference in Australia on World Press Freedom Day.

During the day, UNESCO is also urging newsrooms around the world to observe one minute of silence to pay tribute to the journalists killed each year.

 
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