Global perspective Human stories

Calling for release of kidnapped BBC journalist, UN observes Press Freedom Day

Calling for release of kidnapped BBC journalist, UN observes Press Freedom Day

The United Nations today marked World Press Freedom Day by calling for the release of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist Alan Johnston, who has been detained in Gaza since 12 March, and all other reporters in captivity.

The United Nations today marked World Press Freedom Day by calling for the release of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist Alan Johnston, who has been detained in Gaza since 12 March, and all other reporters in captivity.

“Attacks on freedom of press are attacks against international law, against humanity, against freedom itself – against everything the United Nations stands for,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today. “A free, secure and independent press is among the very foundations of democracy and peace.”

He voiced his dismay of the abduction in the Palestinian Gaza Strip of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who has been held in captivity for the past 52 days.

“I appeal again for Alan Johnston’s immediate and safe release,” he said. “No cause is served, and any cause is undermined, by his continued captivity.”

Mr. Ban also voiced alarm that in the past year, over 150 media professionals have died and many others have been injured, harassed, detained or abducted, becoming targets as they sought “to shed light on the plight of others.”

Scores of people gathered across the street from UN Headquarters in New York to rally for Mr. Johnston’s prompt release in an event organized by the BBC.

“No cause is served by Alan’s captivity,” Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro told the crowd of sign-waving supporters, including numerous fellow journalists who had gathered in a show of solidarity.

BBC’s world news editor Jon Williams praised his colleague’s objectivity in his reporting.

“Serious, dispassionate, impartial journalism is at a premium,” he said at the rally. “That is what Alan Johnston was doing in Gaza.”

He underscored the risks involved in reporting, and in calling for Mr. Johnston’s release said, “Alan Johnston represents the dangers facing journalists around the world.”

The head of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the body that is mandated to protect freedom of expression, honoured all those journalists who have risked their lives and affirmed the significance of the role of the media.

“They understand better than anyone that media contributes significantly to processes of accountability, reconstruction and reconciliation,” UNESCO’s Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said, adding that they also command admiration, respect and support. “Indeed, the growth in violence against journalists is telling, if tragic, testimony to the importance of the media to modern democracies.”

UNESCO’s theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day, which was established by the UN in 1993, is the safety of journalists.

In particular, Mr. Matsuura deplored the violence perpetrated against journalists in Iraq, where 69 media professionals were killed last year alone. Since the start of the conflict in April 2003, 170 journalists, mostly local ones, have perished there.

“Never in recorded history has there been such a large-scale killing of journalists,” he noted.

Mr. Matsuura also asserted that journalists’ safety must be bolstered, urging governments to bring an end to the “pervasive culture of impunity that surrounds violence against journalists.”

General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa paid tribute to journalists who have been impeded in their efforts.

“Our hearts go out to all journalists who have been silenced or those whose freedom has been restricted in any way,” she said in a statement delivered on her behalf by Christian Wenaweser, the Permanent Representative of Liechtenstein.

“And to those who have paid the ultimate price, giving up their lives in pursuit of freedom of expression and greater public awareness,” she added. “Their memories will be forever etched in our hearts.”

Sheikha Haya joined the chorus demanding Mr. Johnston’s immediate and safe release. “But not just Alan Johnston, every reporter unlawfully imprisoned must be set free.”

Echoing her sentiments, the UN Staff Union also called for Mr. Johnston to be freed, highlighting the common risks both UN personnel working in to bring peace and relief and journalists endeavouring to tell their story face.

“A world where reporters and humanitarian workers cannot do their job in reasonably secure conditions is a world much less safe, transparent and free for all of us.”

The top UN human rights official lauded the courage of journalists striving to contribute to building free societies.

“In the face of these dangers, there has never been more information available to so many around the world,” said Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “This represents a vibrant tribute to the perseverance and courage of the press and workers in ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, and evidence of the unquenchable human thirst for information and knowledge.”

Governments are obliged to “respect the right of al to hold opinions without interference,” she added, regardless whether or not they “recognize that attempting to curtail the free flow of ideas is ultimately futile.”

The High Commissioner also called attention to the fact that media professionals are not only in danger in conflict zones, pointing out that journalists have been harassed, killed and intimidated by Government authorities, members of organized crime and armed groups “in countries that are nominally at peace.”

Numerous events are being held around the world marking the day, including a two-day event in Medellin, Colombia, organized by UNESCO with tributes, seminars and an award ceremony for the prestigious 2007 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Prize, the day is being commemorated by UNESCO in Medellin, the hometown of Guillermo Cano, the newspaper publisher for whom the award is named. Mr. Cano was assassinated 20 years ago for criticizing the activities of powerful drug barons in his country.

For the first time in its 10-year history, the honour has been posthumously bestowed. Mr. Matsuura will present the award to the Illya Politkovskaya, son of the winner, Anna Politkovskaya.

Ms. Politkovskaya, esteemed Russian journalist and outspoken human rights campaigner, was murdered outside her Moscow apartment last October. Particularly well-known for her coverage of the conflict in Chechnya as a columnist for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, her work was recognized worldwide.

At UN Headquarters, UNESCO also held discussions on issues relating to the nexus of press freedom, journalists’ safety and impunity, as well as on the role of the Internet as it pertains to free speech.

Meanwhile, in Juba, Sudan, UNESCO has joined forces with the UN Development Agency (UNDP), the Union of Journalists of Southern Sudan and others for a two-day celebration of World Press Freedom Day.

A workshop was held yesterday, in which participants conferred on the obstacles to the freedoms of the press and expression, while today a procession was held from Peace Square to the grave of John Garang, the first Vice-President and ex-southern rebel leader who died in a tragic helicopter crash in 2005.