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

Keynote speech by
Ms. Navi Pillay
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 3 May 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you to this special event to mark World Press Freedom Day, organized by the United Nations Information Service here in Geneva with UNESCO and my Office. The focus of today’s discussion is the role of the media in the development of democracy and freedom. This is a very timely subject given current events.

Rarely has the interface between the role of the media and fundamental human rights 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.

When people’s rights are not realised and their voices are silenced, they will at some point rise up to assert those rights. 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.

The media has paid a heavy price for its sustained and courageous efforts to inform local and international populations about the events as they have unfolded. By the end of April, four journalists had been killed in Libya, two in Bahrain and one each in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia. Another three had been killed in Iraq, continuing the appalling toll on journalists in that country since the 2003 conflict. In all, three-quarters of all the journalists killed so far this year have lost their lives covering news stories in North Africa and the Middle East. Journalists have also been killed since 1 January in Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan and Viet Nam.  

Journalists across North Africa and the Middle East have also been subjected to torture, other forms of violence, mock executions and sexual assault. They have been intimidated, obstructed, harassed, deported, arbitrarily detained and disappeared. In all, 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.

The killing or maltreatment of foreign journalists rightfully results in an international outcry, and diplomatic services are mobilized to win the freedom of those who are kidnapped or detained. However, every year, the plight of many more local journalists and bloggers goes relatively unnoticed. Of the more than 850 journalists killed over the past 20 years, the great majority have been journalists killed in their own countries. Many of them paid the ultimate price for reporting on issues such as corruption, organized crime, politics and human rights.

On this World Press Freedom Day, I would like to pay tribute to their courage and their determination to exercise their right to freedom of expression. In so doing, they enable the rest of us to monitor and defend the realisation of many other human rights.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles assembled by a group of African newspaper journalists.  While the Declaration focused mainly on print media, World Press Freedom Day is now dedicated to supporting freedom of expression across all media, including new means of communication as they emerge.

The problems facing media in North Africa and the Middle East are covered by the Declaration and remain widespread all across the world. Journalists are murdered, arrested, detained, intimidated and censored to a greater or lesser degree on all continents. Media organizations are constrained by economic and political pressures such as restrictions on newsprint, licensing systems which restrict the opportunity to publish, visa restrictions preventing the free movement of journalists, and restrictions on the exchange of news and information. They are also hampered by limitations on the circulation of newspapers, and control of broadcast frequencies within countries and across national borders. In some countries, one-party States or other forms of authoritarian government strive to control the totality of information. 

Although the roles of human rights defenders and the press are different, both are crucial and can be mutually reinforcing in the way they promote accountability and transparency.  Freedom of expression means an open space not only for the media, but also for whole societies. The free flow of information empowers people to claim their rights in the public arena.  While ways and means of communication may differ and evolve, this fact remains a constant.   Despite the determined efforts of more than a few States to suppress the dissemination of information that is inconvenient to them, brave individuals have always found ways, using existing technologies, to bypass obstacles and press for change.

Some of you may remember the samizdat, or underground, publications that became the symbol of dissent in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.  These homemade pamphlets were the clandestine vehicles that conveyed the ideas, thoughts, and cries for freedom of countless intellectuals, journalists, and activists striving to achieve positive change in their repressive societies.  The vitality of samizdat literature was the antithesis of the official line parroted by State-controlled publications. The existence and availability of these pamphlets, despite all the efforts to suppress them, kept alive hopes that a political transformation respectful of human rights could be attained.

Many of the children of those campaigners are now active users of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and make full use of mobile phones’ capability to record and transmit graphic video evidence and SMS messages, as well as to allow direct interviewing from a distance.  These platforms have been masterfully employed by young protestors in the Middle East and North Africa to disseminate information and mobilize the population, as well as to keep the international and national media abreast of developments.

In Tunisia and Egypt, where the national media was to varying degrees under the control of the State, the protesters’ messaging began initially in social media. Then, when the governments began to suppress protesters assembling on the streets, the messages spread to transnational media, including radio, satellite TV and the Internet, which governments struggled, and largely failed, to block. Television in particular showed it still has an unparalleled ability to make us see for ourselves the full horror of atrocities and violence as they unfold.

During the past two weeks, as the suppression of protests in Syria has grown more violent and deadly, much of what is going on there has been coming out in the form of mobile phone video footage published anonymously on YouTube, after conventional media were expelled from the country or otherwise prevented from reporting from the affected Syrian towns and villages. Similar footage is also continuing to emerge to give us a clearer idea of what went on during the last few months of the conflict in Sri Lanka – another situation where a government successfully prevented conventional media from having direct access to a situation where very serious human rights violations were taking place.

The significance of the impact of new technology and internet applications cannot be overestimated. By allowing individuals to share information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national boundaries, the Internet and other forms of new media have rapidly developed into extraordinarily powerful communication tools to inform us of the facts and expose injustice.

It is worth recalling that the right to freedom of expression, as laid down in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was drafted in such a way as to accommodate new technological developments through which individuals can exercise this right, including the Internet and social media.  Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Yet in too many countries around the world, Governments continue to impose undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression to silence dissent and criticism under the pretext of seemingly benevolent goals, such as maintaining stability, economic development and counter-terrorism.

I will continue to monitor and speak out against such worrisome trends, raising issues relating to press freedom wherever and whenever it is pertinent, regardless of whether they occur in the developed or the developing world.  I strongly believe that the Internet should remain as open as possible, and stress that any restriction that may be imposed on an exceptional basis – for example to prohibit the dissemination of child pornography or material that amounts to incitement to commit serious crimes or to racial hatred – must be done in strict compliance with the requirements set out under international human rights law. This means that any conditions for restricting the flow of information must be provided by law, which is unambiguous and understandable to everyone; the restriction must be justified as being necessary for one of the purposes established under international human rights law, mainly to protect the rights of others; and any measure taken must be proportionate to the aim it seeks to achieve.

I have been informed that the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, has found that many authorities are seeking to restrict the free flow of information via the Internet, using increasingly sophisticated legal and technical controls.  The Special Rapporteur made public these findings in a series of lectures in which he highlighted two broad issues: the importance of facilitating access to Internet connections in all countries; and keeping the Internet as open as possible and free from undue restrictions, such as arbitrary blocking or filtering measures, imposition of intermediary liability, criminalization of legitimate expression, and inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection.  I believe this work is of immense importance and offers many elements for further reflection. I understand that the Special Rapporteur will report on this to the next session of the Human Rights Council to be held here in Geneva in June.

The fight for media freedom, the risks journalists take to better inform us, and the use of new technologies all provide particular challenges.  Even in open societies we must continue to remain vigilant so that media laws or regulatory regimes are not enacted which place undue limits on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

As I conclude, let me underscore that the right to freedom of expression also means empowering more and more people to have access to means of communication, including the Internet.  Illiteracy is still widespread, and the electronic age has created even deeper inequalities between those who can propagate their ideas globally and those who have no public forum at all to manifest their thoughts and needs. Established media, such as radio and TV, are still vital to those who cannot read or write. But the Internet is also a wonderful medium for education, and – with considerable help from Governments and donors – should become the principal tool to blast through the obstacles to its own accessibility for millions of people worldwide.

We must all work to ensure that the broadest possible plurality of voices is heard. I wish you a free, open, participatory and fruitful discussion on this World Press Freedom Day.

            Thank you.