/ 19 April 2012

World Press Freedom Day to focus on ‘new voices’

How to preserve and deepen the free speech gains symbolised by the Arab Spring is a key theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The three-day conference, to be held in Tunis, which will host the world’s media freedom activists, governments and nongovernmental organisations is summed up by a Unesco concept document (PDF) on the theme — New voices: media freedom helping to transform societies.

Unesco is one of 30 organisers of the conference, which also include the Tunisian government and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa).

The delegates will wrestle with new challenges thrown up by the internet, including how to marry media freedom and democracy more effectively; the cyber-bullying of journalists; finding ways to enhance the transformative power of social media; and accelerating access to information technology.

The Unesco document starts by referring to the revolution sparked just over a year ago, when a young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight after the authorities confiscated his vegetable cart.

It refers to the image of a “desperate act by an ordinary person”, which went viral through mobile technology and the social media, helping to fuel an uprising that that spread like wildfire through the Arab world.

‘Journalistic professionalism’
Commenting on the conference, Guy Berger, former head of Rhodes University’s journalism department and now Unesco’s director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development division in Paris, said: “Democratisation needs new media-friendly laws, a public culture that cherishes freedom of expression, and journalistic professionalism and independence.”

This year is a watershed, he said, in terms of whether a key region can to secure its newfound media freedom.

“What happens in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries could have a resonance in many other places worldwide,” he said.

The Unesco document notes that even though media freedom is fragile, it has the power to transform societies.

Many in the world do not have the basic communication technology to gain access to the internet — more than 60% of the world’s households still do not own a computer, Unesco quotes the International Telecommunications Union as saying.

However, a “bright spot” is the enormous number of cellphone users – estimated at 5.3-billion — highlighting the importance of the development of cheaper and more powerful mobile telephony.

The ITU said by 2015, at least 788-million users will be connected to the internet exclusively from mobile platforms.

World Press Freedom Day was initiated on May 3 1991 in Windhoek, where a key declaration in favour of press freedom was signed. This advocated an independent, pluralistic press as being essential for democracy and economic development.

The event annually evaluates press freedom around the world, defends the media from attacks on its independence and pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives while carrying out their professional duties.

It also hands over an annual prize to an individual or organisation seen as having defended or advanced media freedom. Last year the winner was imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

One of the key topics this year will be how to use media freedom to develop democracy. The celebrations will take place in a buoyant context, given that many years of censorship, suppression, and restriction have crumbled together with former authoritarian regimes in North Africa.

Some of the discussions will include how much of the Tunisian revolution could have taken place without the transformative power and convergence of social media, mobile connections and satellite TV.

Other issues on the agenda are:

  • How to engage youth in the wider promotion of freedom of expression;
  • How to use media freedom to improve a country’s democratic development;
  • How governments can use the new media to better fulfil citizens’ rights to information;
  • The contribution of social media to the democratic debate; and
  • How to capture and sustain the gains in freedom of expression created by social media, and on the internet more broadly.

New opportunities are seen as raising fresh problems, for instance, in regard to safety of journalists and citizen reporters, regulation in the media sector, and the training of journalists, especially in the context of growing online journalism.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there is a new trend towards the arrest of more online journalists, an increase in cyber attacks on sites that are critical of governments, and even the arrest of bloggers.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

Glenda Daniels is an associate Partner at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane)

Daniels is being hosted by the Media Institute for Southern Africa to attend the conference.