The global pandemic’s collision with the information age has underscored the importance of good journalism. UNESCO’s Guy Berger urges the intergovernmental community to prioritise media freedom during this critical time.
Who wants to know more about Covid-19 vaccinations?
All of us.
As citizens, we deserve information that has a bearing on our lives—we should know about national plans and progress, about virus variants and the price our governments are paying for jabs.
We need to know how our governments are allocating rescue and stimulus packages. Who’s paying, and who’s benefiting? Are we indeed saving jobs and mitigating poverty, as our governments claim?
In any society, only a small handful of actors can provide this information. Those who work in the news media are among them. Journalists do the important work of enabling us to hold governments to account for their promises. Thanks to them, we can understand the world around us as events unfold. But journalists rarely work without fear or favour, and sometimes their employers require them to give favour.
This is where international organisations come into the picture. It falls to bodies like the Commonwealth – and to UNESCO where I work – to help uphold the norms whereby journalists can work freely and safely.
Safety – freedom from physical or moral threats – is a basic prerequisite for carrying out the work of a journalist. Without that fundamental protection, the free flow of information is restricted and a citizen’s chance of understanding what is going on badly limited.
In too many places around the world, impunity for the range of crimes committed against journalists prevails, and a culture of silence and misinformation has taken hold.
In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020. The impunity rate for the killings of journalists during that same time stands at 96%—which is notably higher than the already disgraceful global impunity rate of 87%.
‘In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020.’
Journalists worldwide, including throughout the Commonwealth, are too often targeted by disinformation campaigns and the aggressive discourse of political leaders. Recent times have seen a surge in attacks against journalists covering protests, an increase in incidents of women journalists facing gender-specific threats and violence, and the use of Covid-19 by governments as a pretext to stifle legitimate dissent.
So, what role can international organisations such as the Commonwealth play in reversing these trends?
As a South African, I am personally aware of the positive difference that the Commonwealth has made in advancing norms governing freedom of expression and press freedom.
The landmark Harare Declaration, adopted by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1991, roundly condemned the apartheid government and its regime of censorship; ultimately, it hastened the establishment of democracy in my country. In that same year, the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press established a normative framework for freedom of expression in a post-Cold War world.
The Windhoek Declaration emerged out of a UNESCO-supported seminar that also led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly in 1993. It was African journalists’ calls for greater press freedom that catalysed these landmark events.
Thirty years later in 2021, the global commemoration of World Press Freedom Day comes home to Windhoek (Namibia) on 1-3 May. Commonwealth organisations have a valuable role to play in joining the event and in marking this date.
In doing so, they will be riding the tide of international state-led initiatives addressing this issue. The formation of ‘Group[s] of Friends for the Safety of Journalists’ by Member States at the headquarters of various intergovernmental organisations in Paris, New York, Geneva, Vienna and Strasbourg has virtually guaranteed that the conversation around Media Freedom is now ringing in the halls of major intergovernmental organisations and agencies.
‘Press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies’
The Media Freedom Coalition, with over 40 members, was mobilised through the Media Freedom Campaign initiated by the United Kingdom and Canada in 2019 and contributed to the adoption of the Hague Commitment to Increase the Safety of Journalists at the 2020 World Press Freedom Conference.
These state-led efforts present an opportunity to firmly reiterate the norm that press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies.
In addition to defending and advancing basic principles of media freedom, IGOs also have a great deal to offer in terms of supporting the effective implementation of those norms, not least by urging their Member States to monitor and report on freedom of expression, access to information and journalists’ safety. There is a multitude of relevant platforms supporting this work*.
International organisations, including the Commonwealth, can also work with UNESCO in facilitating connections and building specialised knowledge among key actors, such as judicial operators and security forces. In this regard, a soon-to-be-launched multi-language online course for judges developed by UNESCO jointly with Oxford University could be of special interest to associations and networks of judges and legal professionals in Commonwealth countries.
The development of an informal light touch task force, between UNESCO and several other international organisations will enable us to coordinate these various efforts and ensure they feed into the agenda for 2022: the tenth anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
By highlighting the issue of media freedom in its Critical Conversation series, and by ensuring that is on the agenda of the forthcoming Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Commonwealth Foundation is making an important contribution to these collective efforts.
The global pandemic’s collision with the information age has shown that good journalism can be an issue of life and death: now is the time for intergovernmental organisations and their member states to seize the mantle of media freedom. I’ve seen first-hand the difference they can make.
You can see more of the CJA’s campaign for media freedom here: https://tinyurl.com/5nht29kh – https://tinyurl.com/5yne7wrw – https://tinyurl.com/63hc3ytf