From the fire of battle to the trenches of poverty, UN marks Press Freedom Day
From the deadly front line of the war in Iraq to the subtler trenches of the battle against poverty, the United Nations marked World Press Freedom Day today with awards, exhibitions, and clarion calls for the protection of journalists after a year that saw a record number of media professionals killed or injured in the line of duty.
In Iraq, where over 70 journalists have been killed in the past three years, top UN envoy Ashraf Qazi called on the new Government to protect the right of journalists to do their work free from intimidation and threats, and to guarantee the right of Iraqis to a free and independent press as a necessary precondition for establishing democracy.
In Sudan, another conflict-torn nation, the radio run by the UN Mission in the country (UNMIS) organized a debate on the evolution of the once tightly controlled media towards more freedom since last year’s peace accord with rebels in the south. Speakers tackled the importance of a free press in building democratic societies in the country, where a separate conflict in the western Darfur region is still raging.
In Sri Lanka, 300 participants in an international conference on Media, Development and Poverty Eradication adopted the Colombo Declaration calling for freedom of the press to be recognized as a core element in development strategies and a major player in the fight against all forms of poverty and exclusion. The effect of the media on reducing poverty was the theme of this year’s Day.
“I urge all governments to reaffirm their commitment to the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’, as set out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement noting that scores of media professionals had been killed.
“It is tragic and unacceptable that the number of journalists killed in the line of duty has become a barometer for measuring press freedom,” he added, at the same time calling on the media to exercise that right responsibly. “Media should not be vehicles for incitement or degradation, or for spreading hatred,” he declared.
The expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights for the promotion of freedom of expression noted that in 2005 the world recorded the highest number of journalists and other media professionals killed or injured in the line of duty. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 150 media professionals were killed and that more than 500 were detained or imprisoned.
“Attacks, intimidation and harassment against journalists and media professionals regrettably became every-day events in some parts of the world,” Special Rapporteur Ambeyi Ligabo said in a joint statement with his counterparts in regional organizations for the Americas, Europe and Africa.
“It is noted with grave concern that violence against the media and journalists often occurs with impunity. Criminal sanctions against persons and media who express critical opinions continue, including in the forms of criminal defamation or libel suits,” the statement added.
But it also stressed that this year's Day also sheds light on the link between freedom of the press and poverty eradication. “A free and independent media is a key to combat poverty, as journalists serve as a medium to ensure unhindered circulation of ideas and to promote education and awareness, thus upgrading opportunities,” it said.
The Colombo Declaration adopted at the meeting in the Sri Lankan capital calls on members of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to ensure that those responsible for attacks on media professionals are brought to justice and stressed the major role the media has in fighting poverty.
“It is precisely through the exercise and practice of freedom of expression that the disadvantaged are enabled to recognize and claim the protection of their human rights,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said. “In this calculus of poverty eradication… free and independent media are a central priority.”
In another annual tradition, this time in Colombo, Mr. Matsuura was today presenting the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to this year’s laureate - Lebanese journalist May Chidiac, who lost one of her hands and her left leg in a car bomb attack last September.
The prize is named after Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano, who was assassinated in 1987 after denouncing the activities of powerful drug barons in his country. Announcing this year’s award in March, UNESCO said Ms. Chidiac owes her popularity as much to her professionalism as to her direct and open approach in a country traumatized by years of war.
At the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, Under-Secretary-General Sergei Ordzhonikidze, also stressed the role of free media in fighting poverty. “Lack of access to communication undermines the capacity of the poor to participate in the democratic process, further deepening their sense of being disenfranchised and consolidating their descent into poverty,” he said, at a panel discussion video-linked to Pretoria, South Africa.
At UN Headquarters in New York, an exhibition of the best press photographs of 2005 was opening in the Main Gallery of the General Assembly Visitors’ Lobby, including the World Press Photo of the Year 2005 - a colour image showing the emaciated fingers of a one-year-old child pressed against the lips of his mother at an emergency feeding clinic in drought-stricken Niger.