World Press Freedom Day Conference 2013 – Safety for journalists offline and online
Over the last decade, 600 journalists have been killed while doing their jobs, with last year being particularly deadly as 121 men and women
lost their lives. Most of those killed were local journalists reporting on corruption and drug-related offenses in their districts, not those operating in war-torn regions. Yet out of the hundreds who have killed journalists, very few have faced punishment, with only 1 out of 10 cases leading to any sort of conviction. This widespread impunity was at the center of this year’s World Press Freedom Day Conference held in San Jose, Costa Rica, from the 2nd to the 4th of May.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day, which was established by the UN General Assembly following a Recommendation by UNESCO’s General Conference. The day, 3 May, celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, the theme of this year’s conference being “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.” This includes non-traditional media, such as bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media workers. Over 300 participants – including representatives from governments, UN organizations, NGOs, academia, and media organizations – gathered to discuss the state of press freedom and evaluate the pressing challenges that remain ahead. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) was among the conference’s partners.
At the heart of the conference was the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board in April 2012, and led by UNESCO. The Plan aims at strengthening cooperation between UN organizations, Member States and other stakeholders in promoting a safer working environment for journalists.
The conference culminated in the adoption of the San José Declaration, reaffirming that freedom of expression must extend to all new media, and calling on all stakeholders to continue their efforts to promote the goals of the UN Plan of Action.
One of the main events was the awarding of the 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to the imprisoned Ethiopian journalist, Reeyot Alemu. Arrested in June 2011, she is currently serving a five-year sentence in Kality prison, Ethiopia for writing critically on political and social issues in her country, including poverty and gender equality. In a symbolic gesture, Ana Maria Busquets de Cano, widow of the murdered Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza, after whom the price is named, placed a medal on a framed portrait of Reeyot Alemu. Deeply touched by the award, the prize winner sent a message from prison, saying that “journalists in democratic countries able to write freely should count themselves lucky. In undemocratic countries journalism is a matter of life and death, and journalists have two choices: to stop thinking and writing independently, or to continue and in doing so risk their lives.” She called on all stakeholders to persevere in their efforts to stop the suppression of the press.
In the panel “Safety Online: Security for Journalists in the Digital Age,” organized by the Freedom Online Coalition, representatives from the United States, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Netherlands, together with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue, discussed emerging threats to freedom of expression in the digital realm. The Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, participated via video message, underlining Sweden’s commitment to freedom of expression online as well as offline and reaffirming Sweden’s support to UNESCO’s work in this field.
Special focus was given to Latin America, one of the world’s most dangerous regions for journalists. While Costa Rica, the host of this year’s conference, is an exception to the violence of its neighboring countries, it still faces problems, such as a strong concentration of media ownership, widespread self-censorship, and stifling slander and libel laws. For instance, if someone feels defamed by an article, its author could face up to 100 days in prison. Costa Rica’s President, Laura Chinchilla, stated that a principal challenge going forward is to strengthen freedom of the press and media pluralism, as well as to increase access to technology and citizens’ media and information literacy. Progress in Colombia was hailed as noteworthy: while it remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, recent years have seen a considerable decrease in the number of journalists killed. Enhanced special protection programs and a strengthened judiciary system have been key to the decline, although increased self-censorship amongst journalists has also played a prominent role. Ana Pineda, the Honduran Minister of Justice and Human Rights, underlined that states must stop denying the problem of violence against journalists in order to make real progress in promoting freedom of expression.
One exchange crystallized the conference’s overall sentiment. An Egyptian journalist asked whether death was simply the price that some journalists had to pay to do their jobs, a sort of occupational hazard. Rejecting this, Adnan Rehmat from Intermedia Pakistan said that “the price of journalism should not be more than feeling tired after a long day’s work.”
// Frida Gustafsson, Delegation of Sweden to the OECD and to UNESCO in Paris