Freedom of expression is one of the most precious rights. Many developing nations struggling for democracy, and good governance, do not support freedom of the press and the media in these countries is often restricted or controlled by government censorship.
World Press Freedom Day was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in December 1993, as an outgrowth of the Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press. This seminar took place in Namibia in 1991, and led to the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media.
World Press Freedom Day is observed annually on May 3, to remind the international community that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. The day gives the public the chance to honor media professionals who risked or lost their lives in the line of duty.
In 2005 alone, more than 500 publishers and journalists were arrested and jailed, because they were seen as threats. Some may have reported on government corruption, the absence of political pluralism or human rights; others may have linked criminal activity to influential personalities.
Media freedom also faces severe pressures across the world. Last year, UNESCO condemned the killing of 62 journalists who died as a result of their work. More online journalists, including bloggers, are being harassed, attacked, and killed for their work. They must receive the same protection as traditional media workers.
These journalists must not be forgotten and these crimes should not remain unpunished.
Ensuring media freedom is essential for every country on its road to sustainable development, peace, and democracy.
Regardless of the ideological differences in the various socio-political systems of the world, press freedom — a logical extension of man’s inalienable freedom of expression — is today a universal phenomenon. The freedom is globally promised by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is enshrined in the constitution of almost all countries with written constitutions and customarily observed by societies.
The following quotations summarize and reflect the beliefs of prominent people in our history who have championed freedom of the press. Contemporary leaders also are included, their words reaffirm the importance of press freedom in a truly free society.
Freedom of the Press Equals Democracy
“A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name. Whenever any hindrance, no matter what its name, is placed in the way of this information, a democracy is weakened, and its future endangered. This is the meaning of freedom of press. It is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
Walter Cronkite; Broadcast journalist (1916)
Censorship: Dangerous and Absurd
“In the countries in which the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people ostensibly prevails, the censorship of the press is not only dangerous, but it is absurd. When the right of every citizen to cooperate in the government of society is acknowledged, every citizen must be presumed to possess the power of discriminating between the different opinions of his contemporaries, and of appreciating the different facts from which inferences may be drawn.”
Alexis de Tocqueville; French author of Democracy in America(1853)
Slavery Without Newspapers
“With newspapers, there is sometimes disorder; without them, there is always slavery.”
Benjamin Constant; French writer (1767-1830)
Basis of Our Rights
“What is the liberty of the press … its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all … must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.”
From the Federalist Papers #84; New York Independent Journal (1778-1788)
Formula for Safety
“When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Thomas Jefferson (1799)
When Reason Is Useless
“If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us, the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
George Washington; Address to Officers of the Army (March 15, 1783)
The Basis of Popular Power
“Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power, and to withhold from them information without which power is abused. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”
James Madison (1751-1836)
The meaning of it all is quite clear — a strong, free country and a strong, free press are inseparable.
Certainly, there is a good correlation between press freedom and the different dimensions of human development, economic security, education, food, and health. Along with other indicators of good governance, it creates the environment favorable for sustainable development.
By promoting freedom of the press, states and international organizations provide themselves with a powerful development tool. A free press constitutes an instrument of development, in much the same that education or investment do.
World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to raise the flag in the fight to advance media freedom.