World Press Freedom Day: celebrating and promoting freedom of expression

3 May, 2012

In the context of the observance of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, we reflect on contributions made to the promotion of freedom of expression and the progress still needed.

Proclaimed at the UN General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day has been observed annually on 3 May ever since. The day aims to promote the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluating the global state of freedom of expression, paying tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the cause of their profession and defending the media from attacks on its independence. It serves both to inform citizens of worldwide violations of press freedom and to remind governments of their need to defend and endorse media rights.

The background to World Press Freedom Day stems from the Windhoek Declaration of 1991, endorsed by UNESCO’s General Conference. The Declaration promoted the idea that press freedom is essential for a pluralistic and independent mass media, thus defining press freedom within the context of freedom of expression more generally. Recent Wilton Park events have reinforced the central importance of this right. January’s conference on Peaceful protest: a cornerstone of democracy- how to address the challenges? highlighted freedom of expression as an essential human right, exploring particularly the role played by new media in such occurrences as the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement.

 

The need to protect freedom of speech online was a particular concern (see May 2011’s conference on Media, social media and democratic governance explored more explicitly the importance of free media in enhancing government accountability and democracy). Our panel discussion on internet freedom at the London Conference on Cyberspace, held in November 2011, provided an active contribution to an on-going debate as to how best to protect and preserve the opportunities offered by Cyberspace focusing on the issues of online freedom of expression.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fact that, largely as a result of the recent proliferation of new media technologies, we live in an era of unprecedented media freedom. The Arab transitions have also demonstrated that the media can play an important role in societal transformation, though the precise role is still under debate. However, despite these reasons for optimism, World Press Freedom Day also cautions that media freedom is fragile and not within everyone’s reach. Limited access to quality information is a consequent theme for 3 May, in light of the International Telecommunication Union’s estimate that over 60% of the world’s households do not own a computer and cannot therefore access a broad range of media.

The fact that journalists continue to be arrested, threatened and subjected to violence indicates still further the challenges remaining to genuine media freedom. World Press Freedom Day thus provides an important occasion to celebrate recent developments and to reflect on areas where improvement is vital.

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