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UNESCO Report on Trends in Freedom of Expression Released at Capitol Hill Briefing

Washington, DC – The UNESCO report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development debuted in Washington at a Capitol Hill Briefing yesterday. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post moderated a panel of experts who explored the key elements of the report, focusing on the safety of journalists, media freedom and independence, pluralism and the gender perspective.

The report reveals some positive trends showing greater diversity of sources and opinion due to online and mobile phone penetration, driven by citizen journalism and online media producers. But, overall, concerns remain high. Courtney Radsch, the report’s editor and now advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, pointed out threats to journalists were extending to online producers of content, adding that today all social media is journalism.

Elisa Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, pointed out threats to women reporters compound an existing problem where women are already under-represented in newsrooms around the world. “How can communities grow,” Muñoz asked, “when half the stories go untold?”

On the business side, in management and in ownership, women remain far behind their male counter-parts. Karin Karlekar, who served on the advisory council for the UNESCO report, and is project director of Freedom of the Press, the Freedom House annual survey of press freedom, expanded on the trends in ownership, citing the movement from public to private ownership. While pluralism appears to be served by this trend, Karlekar cautioned that especially in broadcasting, by directing licenses to friends and allies, governments can maintain effective control on the flow of information. “Although it could be a positive trend,” she said, “there is danger in assuming that private ownership is always better and is a positive indicator of improvement. State or public media can also play a positive role and influence in terms of diversity and pluralism.”

With the global launch of the report in Stockholm, Sweden in March, its release appeared well timed to inform the debate on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. Deputy executive director for Article 19, Quinn McKew, has been among the civil society contributors to these discussions.  McKew said that there is still more ground to cover to ensure that freedom of expression and media freedom are well represented within the SDGs.

The panelists were peppered with a variety of questions from an audience consisting of congressional staff, policy advisors, and press freedom and freedom of expression advocates. To one question on the definition of journalism, the panel agreed that the traditional forms of journalism have expanded and, today, bloggers and citizen journalists are considered to be adding to this field and diversifying it. On the challenges faced by women reporters, Muñoz responded that journalism training for women reporters plays a role in overcoming discrimination in the newsroom.

The report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression was made possible by a grant to UNESCO from the Kingdom of Sweden. Minister Counselor and Deputy Chief of Mission for the Swedish Embassy Karin Höglund provided opening remarks to initiate the panel discussion and emphasized the important role that UNESCO plays in promoting freedom of expression and media freedom and looked forward to reading future editions of the report that will inform discussions and policy debates, further defining the direction of freedom of expression and media development globally.