Message from Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2005

2 February 2005

World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to remind the world of the importance of protecting the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without these rights, democracy cannot prevail and development remains unattainable.

Independent, free and pluralistic media have a crucial role to play in the good governance of democratic societies, by ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting participation and the rule of law, and contributing to the fight against poverty.

UNESCO has decided to pay tribute to this critical role played by the media in promoting democracy and good governance by choosing ‘Media and Good Governance’ as the key theme for this year’s celebration.

Through the Millennium Declaration, United Nations Member States expressed their strong, unanimous and explicit support of democratic and participatory governance and recognized free and open media as one of the tools necessary to achieve this goal. The Millennium Declaration affirms that Member States “will spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law” and goes on to resolve “to strengthen the capacity of all countries to implement the principles and practices of democracy and respect for human rights”.

Good governance may be impeded by the blight of corruption, which disrupts the free flow of information, undermines accountability for decisions and discourages greater participation in the decision-making process. Accurate and professional reporting is often the only recourse that society has to combat corruption. Journalists need the support of the larger society to eliminate hindrances to accurate reporting. Furthermore, pledges to increase transparency and accountability in public administration must be backed up with laws granting full access to areas of information in the public interest. The provision of a functioning legal infrastructure encourages independent and pluralistic media to flourish and is one of the preconditions for good governance.

Ensuring the right to press freedom around the world, therefore, should be regarded as a priority. Sadly, all too often, journalists lack the independence required to expose cases of corruption or the abuse of power, to denounce human rights violations and to facilitate an open dialogue between the state and civil society. Government measures to control the media, either directly or indirectly, have many motivations but ultimately they have a common outcome, namely, democracy as a practice or an aspiration is undermined.

Journalists may be exposed to physical danger when pursuing their profession. Some become the victims of violence because they bring into the open what some people want hidden; in other cases, journalists are at risk because they are reporting from areas of armed conflict. A new and disquieting development is the abduction of journalists and turning them into hostages; this, too, is an attack on freedom of speech and media freedom. Journalists and media staff deserve to have conditions of reasonable safety wherever they may be working in the world. According to professional organizations, 2004 and the beginning of 2005 have been the worst period in a decade in terms of the numbers of journalists killed, with more than 70 journalists and media workers losing their lives. Hundreds more receive death threats, many are intimidated, and some are held hostage or tortured for exercising their profession. These acts are unconscionable not only because they violate the human rights of individuals but also because they poison the well-spring of good governance and democracy, namely, the flow of accurate and reliable information.

Thus, freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment. Instead, it is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information. Given the media’s crucial role in disseminating knowledge and information, it is vital that media outlets and professional associations encourage accurate, professional and ethical reporting. This can be done by establishing voluntary codes of conduct, providing training for journalists and setting up mechanisms of self-regulation.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, let us remember that free and pluralistic media provide a solid foundation for good governance, development and peace. A commitment to removing all obstacles to press freedom and improving the conditions for independent and professional journalism is therefore essential and we encourage both Member States and media professionals to strengthen their efforts in this direction. We pay homage to the journalists who have put their lives or freedom at risk in order to provide the public with accurate and independent information. Their professionalism and courage constitute an invaluable contribution to the defence of the basic rights and freedoms of everyone.

Koïchiro Matsuura

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