Achieving the 2030 Agenda through Freedom of Information and Safety for Journalists was the underlining focus of the high-level event held at UN Headquarters in New York on 5 May celebrating World Press Freedom Day in 2016.
UN delegations, officials, civil society, experts and students of journalism came together to pay solemn tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty and explore in discussion the fundamental principles of press freedom contrasted with the challenges facing the journalistic profession today. The two interactive panel debates that ensued covered Freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and as a human right as well as how to ensure safety for journalism online and offline against the background of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Both the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr Mogens Lykketoft, addressed the meeting via video message. UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Mr Frank La Rue, underscored how through the accountability mechanism linked to the SDG Goal 16 on ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’, we can tackle vital issues like the safety of journalists, prevention policy, and the elimination of impunity. It is through public access to information that we shall promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, he underlined.
Mr Kaha Imnadze, Permanent Representative of Georgia to the UN and Chairman of the General Assembly Committee on Information, as well as Mr Kai Sauer, Permanent Representative of Finland, country that hosted the global celebrations of the Day in 2016 marking the 250th anniversary of the first law in the world protecting freedom of expression – which was passed in its modern-day territory, also delivered statements.
Highlighting the Importance of bringing civil society into all policy discussions, Mr Said Essoulami, President of the Morocco-based Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, stressed the importance of incorporating the elements of Goal 16, particularly regarding access to information in his region, into their legislations and legal frameworks. He called for legal systems that protect journalists not ones that restrict their ability to work and investigative.
Ms Diane Foley, Founder and President of the ‘James W. Foley Legacy Foundation’ (https://www.jamesfoleyfoundation.org/) was a special guest at the event. She spoke of the challenge posed by the increased number of citizen journalists and freelance journalists today and how ending impunity is the answer to address safety of journalists. Ms Foley described one of the foundation’s initiatives to build an alliance for a ‘culture of safety’ through modules on safety of journalists. The Foundation strives to faithfully make James Foley’s vision a reality, through its commitment to American hostages, their families, and freelance journalists. She concluded by showing a video clip of the documentary film recently released about the life of her son, entitled: ‘Jim: The James Foley Story’. “The film does not give us answers but it will hopefully inspire the solution”, she said.
Ms Janine di Giovanni of Newsweek, a multi award-winning journalist and author, spoke of her experience as a war correspondent and expanded on the change that has taken place in the ways that conflicts are covered today to the potential detriment of the journalistic profession often times. She addressed the question of degradation of quality reporting often linked to the digitalization of the media. Addressing comments to the many students of journalism present in the meeting, she stressed the importance of accuracy and cross-checking information whilst reporting, cautioning against digital sources of journalism and news media that do not reference sources or do not privilege thorough information.
Mr Dillon Case, Managing Director at Pilot Media Initiatives, made the case for political satire as an innovative form of journalism and effective way to convey the news. He argued that it helps expand the reach and access of information.
The panel finally heard from Ms Laura Sanicola, a student of journalism at Fordham University in New York City and Editor-In-Chief of her school’s newspaper, ‘The Fordham Ram’. She deliberated on the current trends given the digitalization of the media, with a proliferation of sources, and on the current state of the journalistic profession. Drawing from experience in reporting on crime in the New York borough of the Bronx, she debated with Janine di Giovanni on pros and cons of the changes from print to digital media. Ms Sanicola reviewed the challenging though still principled work of a journalist. She concluded that whether one may be working in traditional or in digital media, it is up to each individual journalist to hold up to the standards of ensuring accuracy of information.
In the interaction and exchanges that followed between panelists and audience, it was assessed that press freedom and the right to information have a direct relevance to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16. In fact, in striving for these principles a society enables itself to succeed in each of the other 16 Goals, as noted in the Finlandia Declaration (https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/finlandia_declaration_3_may_2016.pdf) adopted in Helsinki and distributed in the room in New York. It states that SDG target 16.10 is relevant to achieving all SDG goals and in particular SDG 5 on gender equality.
Against this background, the World Press Freedom Day in 2016 highlighted the links between press freedom, the right to freedom of information, and sustainable development in the digital age. The common thread here is the role of journalism in a society and the importance of safeguarding those who enable access to information to the greater public.
On 3 May, the Group of Francophone Ambassadors in New York, with the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF), and the Permanent Missions of France and Tunisia to the United Nations organized a meeting under the theme "From Speech to Practice: Freedom of the press, protection of journalists and the fight against Impunity" where UNESCO participated as a panelist outlining the concrete actions being undertaken in this field.