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Free press, access to information vital for development, top UN officials stress

Free press, access to information vital for development, top UN officials stress

Marking the annual World Press Freedom Day, top United Nations officials have stressed the role of a secure and independent media, and access to information, in empowering individuals and advancing development.

“When information flows freely, people are equipped with tools to take control of their lives,” noted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message for the Day, observed each year on 3 May. “When the flow of information is hindered – whether for political or technological reasons – our capacity to function is stunted.”

Mr. Ban stressed that a free, secure and independent media is one of the foundations of peace and democracy. Attacks on freedom of the press are attacks against international law, humanity, and freedom itself – everything the UN stands for, he said.

Alarmed at the increasing targeting of journalists around the world, and the failure to thoroughly investigate and prosecute such crimes, the Secretary-General called on all societies to spare no effort in bringing to justice the perpetrators of such attacks. He also paid tribute to all who work in difficult and dangerous conditions to provide the world with free, unbiased information.

The theme for this year's World Press Freedom Day, which was established by the UN in 1993, is “access to information and the empowerment of people.”

In his message on the occasion of the Day, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – the body tasked with protecting freedom of expression – stressed that press freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people by giving people the information that can help them gain control over their own lives.

“This empowerment supports participatory democracy by giving citizens the capacity to engage in public debate and to hold governments and others accountable,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.

Access to information is primordial to the exercise of the basic human right of freedom of expression, Mr. Matsuura added. To be free, the media need to have access to information. Such access is also indispensable in fighting corruption, which has been defined as the primary obstacle to development.

The winner of this year's UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize is a Mexican reporter who has been a target of death threats, sabotage and police harassment because of her work uncovering prostitution and child pornography networks.

Freelance investigative journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro will receive the award today at a World Press Freedom Day ceremony in Maputo, Mozambique, organized by UNESCO.

General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim stressed the importance of press freedom, noting that “it is access to information that truly empowers the individual to become more active and more responsible. In this free press is a crucial ally.”

He said the media contributes to the process of democratization, to the strengthening of the rule of law and ultimately to institution building by asking the “right and often difficult” questions, providing access to information and representing all views impartially.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights marked the Day by noting that harassment and secrecy laws are weakening press freedom. “It is a sad fact that many governments across the world persist in undermining the freedom of the press to report facts and opinions and, by extension, the right of people in general to be informed about events and policies that are shaping our world,” Louise Arbour said.

Ms. Arbour noted that governments are becoming more secretive and offering propaganda disguised as objective information – especially when alleged security-related issues are on the table.

The proliferation of new or strengthened secrecy laws means that the media are forced to resort to speculation, which can then be used against them to further undermine their credibility, or even as a justification for initiating legal proceedings against them, she added.

Echoing her comments, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression marked the Day by calling on governments to end censorship, protect a free and independent media and guarantee their right to criticize.

“Freedom of the press cannot be applicable exclusively for those with whom we agree,” stated Ambeyi Ligabo. “On the contrary, the key to freedom of expression is to respect the rights of those with whom we disagree to voice their own opinion. Without this right, democracy itself cannot flourish.”

In Afghanistan, Norah Niland, Chief Human Rights Officer for the UN Assistance Mission there, underlined the importance of press freedom as the country prepares for a fresh round of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

“In the run-up to Afghanistan's elections in 2009 and 2010 press freedom will be more vital than ever, people can only make informed decisions about the political future of their country if they are empowered with balanced objective information,” said Ms. Niland. “The media has a crucial role to play in this respect.”