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Press Freedom

World Celebrates 250 Years Since First Freedom of Information Act

HELSINKI, May 4 2016 (IPS) - Press freedom is not just a beautiful idea but a very concrete thing, included in the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda which is meant to lead the humankind to sustainable development, UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, said at the opening of the World Press Freedom Day here Tuesday.

The meeting marked the 25th celebration of World Press Freedom Day and attracted a record audience of more than 1200 journalists from around the world.

The origins of World Press Freedom Day are in Namibia where a group of African journalists gathered at an UNESCO seminar in 1991. The call to create an international day of press freedom was endorsed by the United Nations in 1993.

Bokova and the prime minister of Finland, Juha Sipilä, both recalled another important anniversary. This year’s press freedom day is organised 250 years after Finland – then a part of Sweden – became the first country in the world to get a freedom of information act. Since then, more than hundred states have followed suit.

According to Bokova the world has changed a lot and two dramatic changes came just last year when both the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris climate agreement were accepted.

There is, however, turbulence and change across the world and this ”requires a strong environment of press freedom and a well-functioning system to ensure the people’s right to know,” Bokova said.

Violence haunts journalists, too. 825 professionals have been killed during the past decade and less than six per cent of the cases have been resolved. UNESCO is working to improve the safety of journalists and to end the impunity of crimes against them, she continued.

The two-day UNESCO conference includes various plenaries, panel discussions and other events. One of the panels on Tuesday ended up discussing whether neutrality is possible or even desirable in news coverage on migration. The theme of the panel was the Impact of the Refugee Crisis on Public Service Media Values.

The title of the panel referred to the recent events in Europe where the influx of about 1,3 million asylum seekers mainly from Middle East and Africa has caused a phenomenon called ”refugee crises”.

The term has also been used in the UNESCO meeting’s host country Finland which received in 2015 about 32 000 people compared to previous years with only a couple of thousand refugees arrivals.

Ali Jahangiri, a Finnish radio presenter, originally from Iran, was recently part of a team that made a television documentary called Unknown Refugee. They followed Syrian refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos through Europe.

Jahangiri is strongly against ”forced balance” where the coverage is based on the idea of ”creating debate” by picking up ”extreme ends” of opinions on controversial themes like refugees.

Charlotte Harder from Danish Broadcasting Corporation recalled that the same method of ”balancing” used to be used in climate change reporting but has since been dropped. She reclaimed ”being fair instead of being neutral” while covering these themes.

Carolina Matos, Brazilian lecturer of sociology from London City University, argued that instead of trying to balance two aspects the news coverage should include many sides, especially the positive sides which tend to be left uncovered.

Professor emerita of journalism from Helsinki University, Ullamaija Kivikuru, sat in the audience of the panel and drew a conclusion that it does not seem to be very clear to anybody how these important questions should be covered.

She has a simple message: More research is needed. ”No abstract theories but describing what has been reported and media critical analyses on that.”

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