May 3rd marked World Press Freedom Day, as inaugurated by the UN General Assembly in 1993. This year’s theme, Critical Minds for Critical Times, will observe the pivotal role played by world media representatives in promoting informed, engaged, and developed societies. The day also remembers media workers, particularly journalists, who have died or suffered persecution as a result of their profession.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as agreed upon by the international community in 1948, expresses that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…without interference to see, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Individuals’ access to information is, therefore, a foundational right that enables independent decision making and shapes the structure of societies. According to Human Rights Watch, “access to information and free expression are two sides of the same coin,” and the extent to which they are freely exercised provides a measure of the respect societies have for human rights.
The importance and relevance of Article 19, in the contemporary context, was reaffirmed through its incorporation in the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. For example, goal 16 seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies” through the creation of strong and transparent institutions within state frameworks that uphold the fundamental freedoms of expression by ensuring “public access to information.”
Yet, to achieve this, a collective world consciousness needs to be reached in recognition of the contributions made by media and journalists in creating and disseminating information. The exchange of information and opinions not only raises an awareness of communal critical thinking, evaluation, and civic engagement, but also promotes greater transparency in governance and democratic expression. Based on this, Thomas Hughes, from the Article 19 Organization, states “journalists defend the public’s right to know and are therefore human rights defenders.”
Despite this, however, journalists, media workers, and media organizations around the world are often targeted for communicating and reporting on politics, crime, corruption, war, and issues that negatively impact human rights. The silencing of journalists is commonplace and is often perpetrated by criminal, non-criminal, and even representative groups in areas of society and states where institutions, the rule of law, civic rights, and government parameters are weak.
Passive to overt intimidation or harassment, kidnapping, involuntary detention, torture, and/or imprisonment are conventional actions that are used against many media representatives. The killing of journalists is also prevalent, and results in what UNESCO describes as “the ultimate form of censorship.”
These actions work to actively deprive information and knowledge from people and societies who may otherwise form alternate perspectives if information was more freely available. In this manner, deliberately restricting the free-flow of communication denies an individual of their right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Media representatives have long been regarded as vulnerable professionals, precisely on account of their professions. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion or Expression, alongside other key world media and human rights agents closely monitor the security of journalists and media workers around the world. Contemporary findings are not, however, reassuring that respectful and peaceful societies are evolving, particularly in light of the growing number of conflicts between states and regions where media representatives make up the high number of casualties caught in the crossfire, violence, and insecurity.
In support of non-government organizations that evaluate important issues, such as the World Impunity Index (on the targeted killings of journalists that remain unsolved, as compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists) and the World Press Freedom Index (compiled by Reporters without Borders), the UNHRC adopted a resolution in late 2016 on the Safety of Journalists. Resolution 33/L.6 urged states to actively help prevent violence against journalists and safeguard them with protective institutions that recognize their vulnerability and values their contributions as communicators.
With that said, media workers exercise the right to express and inform freely. They promote the sharing of ideas and opinions, and provide a medium for representation and reporting on behalf of others. Undermining this basic right by shooting the messenger, or otherwise, inhibits the growth of knowledge, information, as well as cultural and social development. On this basis, “guaranteeing the safety of journalists is a priority for all development plans and for reaching the 2030 Agenda” Frank La Rue, UNESCO Assistant Director-General.