The Windhoek Declaration is considered a benchmark for ensuring press freedom around the world. It all began at a seminar in Windhoek in 1991, but the ideas exchanged by African journalists and media professionals acted as a catalyst to encourage press freedom, independence and pluralism in Africa and in other parts of the world. How did this come about?
History of the Windhoek Declaration
The Windhoek Seminar
From 29 April to 3 May 1991, African independent journalists gathered at the UNESCO seminar “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Media” held in Windhoek, Namibia. The conference focused on the role of a free, independent and pluralistic media in light of the constant pressures and violence faced by media professionals working in Africa.
The Windhoek seminar on “promoting an independent and pluralistic African press” was held in partnership with other UN Agencies such as UNDP. The event was supported by 12 international agencies, ranging from Nordic funders, the International Federation of Journalists, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and the World Association of Newspapers. A total of 63 participants from 38 countries attended. Hage Geingob, the then-prime minister of newly independent Namibia, set the tone by highlighting the importance of independence and a watchdog role for the press.
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The Declaration was adopted in 1991 in a climate of optimism. It was due, in most part, to Namibia’s newfound freedom, the slow unraveling of apartheid in South Africa as well as growing resistance to African dictatorships and development−type autocratic regimes. This context resulted in an impetus for democratic reforms within a rapidly changing media environment across the continent.
The Windhoek Declaration
The Windhoek perspective continues to imply an important role for governments, but within firm parameters of freedom, pluralism and independence. States should be proactive in protecting journalists and advancing opportunities for citizens to exercise freedom of expression. And states should avoid controlling the media, and avoid having a state monopoly on the media. Further, the Windhoek view on pluralism points to states ensuring legal and practical support of sectors such as public service and community media.
“The establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.”
- extract of the Windhoek Declaration
Windhoek’s global impact
“The Windhoek Declaration became the first in a series of commitments, region by region, to uphold the freedom of people everywhere to voice their opinions, and their access to a variety of independent sources of information.”
Increasing numbers of countries have put in place freedom of information laws. We have seen a rise in the acceptance of professional and ethical standards in journalism, and more national media systems are moving in the direction of self-regulation. Organizations to defend press freedom have flourished at the local, national and global levels, and are working across the board — to enhance the protection of journalists’ safety and end impunity, to promote media self-regulatory mechanisms and provide advice on media legislation and policy. UNESCO has worked closely with a great many of these organizations.
Since the Windhoek Declaration, stakeholders have evolved much more clarity about the complexities around self-regulation as a key standard for an optimum journalism environment.
- In February 1992, UNESCO's International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has changed its operating rules to take into account the Windhoek Declaration's recommendations. Since then, the private sector has been able to benefit from the IPDC's financial support, on the same terms as those from the public sector. Editorial independence is a common criterion.
- In 1992, UNESCO has provided its support to the establishment of an international alert network based in Toronto, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) as well as to the creation of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
International conferences and Declarations organized in the past 30 years
"Windhoek prompted the evolution of African standards appropriate to the ideal of journalism."
Windhoek-inspired regional declarations: Alma-Ata, Santiago, Sana’a and Sofia
Rallying to the Windhoek principles, subsequent workshops aimed at reproducing the momentum brought by Windhoek ideals of media freedom independence and pluralism to other regions. Four regional seminars were organized for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab States and Central and Eastern Europe. The events resulted in four declarations.
- 1992 – Alma Ata Declaration Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Asian Media, held in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, from 5 to 9 October 1992
- 1994 – Santiago Declaration Seminar on Media Development and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Santiago, Chile, 1994
- 1996 – Sana’a Declaration Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media, Sana'a, Yemen, 1996
- 1997 – Sofia Declaration Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media with special focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997
World Press Freedom Day International Conferences and Declarations
UNESCO’s General Conference endorsed the Windhoek Declaration in 1991 and following the proposal of Windhoek seminar participants to devote a day to the promotion of press freedom. In 1993 the UN declared 3 May as World Press Freedom Day, the same day of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration. Since then, UNESCO has organized international conferences to debate and raise awareness about press freedom’s most pressing issues. The conferences have increased in scope and size across the years, and the spirit of adopting a declaration at the end of each conference has been maintained most of the time.
“I am aware of the criticisms that may be levelled at an intergovernmental organization, which is bold enough to host an exhibition and round tables denouncing outrages perpetrated against journalists. But UNESCO, I repeat, is an area of dialogue and freedom, a forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions that is so necessary to democracy.”
1993 – World Press Freedom Day established by UN General Assembly
1994 / 1996 - World Press Freedom Day celebration at UNESCO headquarters
1997 – Bilbao, Spain. Conference on tolerance and the media
1998 – London, United Kingdom.
1999 – Bogota, Colombia. Conference on unpunished crimes against journalists
2000 – Geneva, Switzerland. Round Table on media in conflict and post-conflict areas.
2001 – Namibia, Windhoek. The Windhoek Seminar: "Ten years on: Assessment, Challenges and Prospects" African Charter on Broadcasting adopted by participants of the seminar.
2002 – Manila, Philippines. "Terrorism and Media" Resolution adopted by participants of the conference on Terrorism and Media.
2003 – Kingston, Jamaica. "Freedom of Expression: Early New Millenium Challenges"
2004 – Belgrade Declaration on “Support to Media in Violent Conflict and Countries in Transition”
2005 – Dakar Declaration on “Media and Good Governance”
2006 – Colombo Declaration on “Media, Development and Poverty Eradication”
2007 – Medellin Declaration on “Securing the Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity”
2008 – Maputo Declaration on "Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People"
2009 – Doha Declaration on “The potential of media: dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation”
2010 – Brisbane Declaration on “Freedom of Information: the Right to Know”
2011 – Washington Declaration on “21st century media: new frontiers, new barriers”
2012 – Carthage Declaration on “New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies”
2013 – San Jose Declaration on “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in all Media”
2014 – UNESCO HQ. “Media Freedom for a Better Future: Shaping the Post-2015 Development Agenda”
2015 - Riga Declaration on “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Media Safety in the Digital Age”
2016 – Finlandia Declaration on “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms -This Is Your Right”
2017- Jakarta Declaration on “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”
2018 – Accra Declaration on “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law”
2019 - Addis Ababa Declaration on “Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”
2020 - The Hague, The Netherlands "Journalism Withouth Fear or Favour"
2021 - Windhoek, Namibia "Information as a Public Good"
UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize
All the award winners deserve a special place in the history of world communications and each is an example to others who dedicate themselves to this difficult task in order to carry on, indomitably, reporting to people what they need to know so they can live the way they deserve: in a fair society with equal opportunities.
The UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was established in 1997 on the initiative of UNESCO’s Executive Board.
Awarded every 3 May, the $25,000 Prize is named in honour of Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper El Espectador. It is funded by the Guillermo Cano Isaza Foundation (Colombia), the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation (Finland), Namibia Media Trust(link is external) and Democracy & Media Foundation Stichting Democratie & Media.
The Prize winner is selected by the Director-General of UNESCO on the basis of the recommendations by an independent jury. Read more
World Press Freedom Day 2021
Information as a Public Good
World Press Freedom Day 2021 theme “Information as a Public Good” serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind. The theme is of urgent relevance to all countries across the world. It recognizes the changing communications system that is impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies and sustainable development.
The 2021 International Conference returns World Press Freedom Day back to WIndhoek, its roots, focusing on contemporary issues for freedom of expression, access to information and the public service role of journalism within the changed communications ecosystem. The event is hosted by UNESCO and the Government of Namibia.
2021 visual identity goes back to the roots
The design is inspired from the original historic poster of the 1991 Seminar. In a way, the poster represented the aspirations of the signatories of the Windhoek Declaration for a free, independent and pluralistic press, which will later become a gift of Africa to the world, delivered by UNESCO. For the 30th anniversary, the 2021 visual identity pays tribute to the forerunners and succeeding champions of the Windhoek Declaration and press freedom around the world, by reinterpreting the original design of the 1991 and recognizing that reliable information is a public good that helps to advance our collective aspirations.