You Can’t Have Sustainable Development Without Freedom of Expression

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova

While the importance of freedom of the press was being discussed at a recent UNESCO conference held at the UN Headquarters,  a group of countries were working towards the elimination of this topic from being one of the Millennium Goals

The past six years have seen a substantial rise in the global number of journalists have been maimed, imprisoned, placed in exile, have disappeared or confirmed dead – all because of their public and non-violent exercise of freedom of expression. This has raised many eyebrows and has sparked a global awareness like never before.

Last week, UNESCO launched its ‘World Trends Report on Freedom of Expression and Media Development.’ The organization’s motto is that this report was founded on the international norm that freedom of expression and opinion is a general right for all citizens and that it strongly reinforces the ideology that press freedom and safety be recognized as being an integral part of a wider landscape of media development. 

In other words, freedom of the press designates the right to utilize any and all types of public media platforms in order to make use of social visibility and significance, which will in turn be used as an extenuation of freedom of expression and access to information. 

In partnership with the Swedish government, as well as an advisory group of 27 international civil society and academic experts, UNESCO’s research was carried out by way of analyzing trends in media freedom around the globe. The research observed four angles: freedom, pluralism, independence and the safety of journalists.

At first, winning this battle was most important in achieving human rights and good governance. Though making some good strides, there are still hoops to jump over, bridges to cross, and a mighty long way to go – as the ultimate goal has yet to come to full realization. But now there is a shift toward the importance of freedom of expression with more responsibilities added. It is now seen as one the pillars for sustainable development.

Quite a number of Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries claim to provide formal legal guarantees of freedom of speech to their citizens. However, these rights are often either not implemented or are exercised inconsistently, since barriers to freedom of speech are common and vary drastically [depending on the country]. 

Yet, along with these so-called legislated guarantees come a plethora of disillusionments especially since there has been an increasing swerve from traditional media to online media sources. This gives rise to many new issues such as true freedom, gender-based exclusions, independence, media ethics, security, privacy and free network. 

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, on July 10, at the United Nations Headquarters, gave opening remarks at the launching event of the report, emphasizing that freedom of expression must now be one of the aims of the Millennium Development Goals and also the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “Nine out of 10 journalists are punished and seven out of 10 journalists are killed. Every six days a reporter dies while doing his job,” Bokova said. 

On the flip side, the UN Nations has been working with an NGO, called the Open Working Group (OWG), to draft a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals and include a few new set of goals. Goal number 1 maintains will see an intensive push toward the eradication of poverty by 2030 – and rightfully so. However, the follow-up to Goal 16.7, promoting free and easy access to information, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, is the subject of heated discussion and opposition from certain OWG members, such as  Russia, China and Cuba. 

This, in turn, means freedom of expression is at a weakening stage and in danger of either being replaced by transparency and vagueness, or worse, access to media and protection of the right to information and could be dropped from the UN development goals altogether. Results of the drafts will be lain out at the UN’s Thirteenth session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals from  July 14 to 18. 

In not backing down, though, a non-profit organization called Reporters Without Borders, is strongly urging governments to include freedom of information and the right to information as one of the development program’s specific goals, as was initially written in the first report.

It is the RWB’s opinion that freedom of expression is essential for establishing true democracy, social inclusion and public participation when it comes to decision-making. Citizens cannot exercise their right to vote effectively or take part in public decision-making if they do not have free access to information and are not able to express their views freely. Violating one’s freedom of expression creates other violations, in particular the right to freedom of association and assembly.

At the presentation of the UNESCO study, Joel Simon, Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, participated. Simon sayed that the organization's definition of a journalist hasn’t changed, despite the fact that changes in communication technology have had a tremendous impact on journalists’ safety.  "However, CPJ is advocating not only for freedom of the press, but increasingly for freedom of expression," Simon added.

Bollinger expressed a practical necessity for free speech in the press – one which has never been present. He added that nothing is more important in the world than to highlight the importance of freedom of expression by saying, “We should all have the chance to speak about everything and collectively and globally. But now, there is some optimism,” he said.  

“We have thought of freedom of speech as being critically important and now there is a new rationale for why freedom of the press is so important in recognizing that people’s standard of living has improved due to technology", Bollinger went on to say. “And it gets even easier, because technology is an extraordinary advancement for humanity and human interaction.”

However, viewing the situation from the pessimistic and realistic perspective, between 2011 and the end of June 2014, roughly eight media workers have been killed in Libya; ten in Egypt;  11 in Iraq, 20 in Pakistan – and forget about Syria’s numbers. The tally is close to 75. Those numbers are about the confirmed killings. Disappearances, imprisonments and other types of punishment is not a part of the above figures.

On July 11, Saudi Arabian officials arbitrarily arrested, detained and placed on trial some human rights defenders – which caused great concern at the United Nations’ New York Headquarters. This summoned an urgent meeting where UN officials urged Saudi authorities to immediately release those being held for their peaceful advocacy of human rights. And earlier that same day, Myanmar [Burma] had sentenced five journalists to 10 years imprisonment for writing revealing reports of a weapons factory. Of course this list could be updated every day.

“They were sentenced for doing their jobs. That is a huge blow for press freedom in Myanmar and reverses signs of positive change," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, the non-governmental organization which speaks out against the main threats to democracy and empowers citizens to exercise their fundamental rights.

Statistics of the Eastern side of the world is not the only one that should draw immediate attention. The Americas are also guilty. In 2012, seven journalists were murdered in Mexico for reporting information, and 16 journalists and human rights defenders were murdered in Brazil. 

Still-communist China holds a tight reign over its media and information functionalities, which have long been an essential dimension of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarian system. And although the country’s emphasis on the leadership role of the party in managing the media may be nothing new, its constant reiteration indicates the limited prospects of the party voluntarily loosening its grip on the media or internet sector. 

An October 2013 report titled The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship was carried out by Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst at Freedom House. Results of the research pointed out China’s fear of a heightened sense of insecurity, lack of control, and a possible depletion of ability to influence public opinion – up to the point of causing existential threats to the regime. 

To prevent any such shame to China’s communist party, government officials have now made its apparatus for censoring and monitoring internet communications even more untouchable. “They are said to be more sophisticated, strategic, and in many ways, effective – compared to the pre-existing apparatus,” according to Cook’s report. 

The country’s top leaders are devoted to reasserting party dominance over an information landscape and say they can sense a perception of a ‘slipping away’ of their control. And how can that be stopped? There has been increased use of heavy pressure and collective punishment tactics placed on foreign media and also the harassment their frontline journalists.  

Karin Karlekar, head project director at Freedom House and who served on the advisory council for the UNESCO report, was one of the panelists at the UN event.  In looking at the issue from the business side, Karlekar stated that there is a growing trend in movement from public to private ownership and cautioned that while pluralism appears to be served by this trend, especially in broadcasting by directing licenses to friends and allies, governments can maintain effective control on the flow of information. 

“Although it could be a positive trend, there is danger in assuming that private ownership is always better and is a positive indicator of improvement. State or public media can also play a positive role and influence in terms of diversity and pluralism,” Karlekar said. She also added that despite any advancement, gender-based inequality is still at a high level. “Regarding the progression in management and in ownership, women remain far behind their male counter-parts.” 

Throughout the research, the right of women to be informed and have their voices heard was greatly emphasized.  A study in 2010 showed discrimination as one of the top 10 challenges for women in their right to freedom of expression. In April, two foreign female journalists were shot in eastern Afghanistan. So far, at least 25 female journalists have suffered sexual violence – while impunity for these crimes is said to remain one of the norms. 

Swedish Ambassador Mårten Grunditz stated that there is a push for gender equality in the media and highlighted certain statistics of the report. “This shows clear gender inequality. Female journalists are still very much under-represented. The glass ceiling is very much in tact,” Grunditz said.

Censorship also plays its role in hindering freedom of expression. Cuba is high up on the scale for the top-10 most censored countries in the world and Europe, too, is in the count. Italy is ranked not too far behind most former communist states of Eastern Europe.  

Journalists are said to take the greatest risks of their lives in wanting to talk about human issues across the world. Their killings never have anything to do with criminal acts committed by them nor the lack of respect for turf. Instead, the condemnations were all based upon a few things: either reporting serious issues that affect humanity, conflicts between countries, most often their gender, or to diminish their rights to freedom of expression. 

Even US first lady Michelle Obama, who has never involved herself in many political issues, openly defended freedom of expression and other "universal rights," while speaking to students at Peking University [China] in March 2014.

“These were sensitive concepts that mainland university professors were banned from teaching a year ago,” she told the students. “We have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard." 


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