Africa, Arab Spring, in the field, public diplomacy

Everybody’s Talking About World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day – celebrated today, May 3, with the centerpiece UNESCO event held in Carthage, Tunisia – is one of those global phenomena, like soccer, that seizes Americans only peripherally.  Yes, the main event last year was held in New York, and yes, U.S. organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists release key reports on the occasion, but by and large the day comes and goes here in the U.S. without much fanfare.  Through the wisdom of our founding fathers and much vigilance and hard work by journalists, editors, and publishers since that time, U.S. press freedom is secure.  But this is by no means the case everywhere, and therefore World Press Freedom Day becomes an important opportunity – and sometimes an all-too-necessary excuse – for renewed discussion of media freedom issues in countries around the world.  The U.S. government, through its Embassies overseas, is an active participant in these discussions.

President Barack Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day 2012 makes U.S. principles and commitment clear, as does the video statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But U.S. Embassies overseas also actively seize the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day to reinforce American support for the principle and practice of media freedom.  Many Embassies develop and promote creative opportunities for local journalists and editors to speak out.   More on that below.

When the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, it outlined the following goals:
–     to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom
–     to assess the state of press freedom worldwide
–     to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom
–     to encourage reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics
–     to mobilize support for media that are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom
–     to remember journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession

UNESCO’s selection of Tunisia as the site of this year’s World Press Freedom Day ceremony reinforces its key theme for 2012: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies, summarized here:  “the recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact that social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? [Text messaging] and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.”

U.S. Embassies are making the most of this opportunity to reinforce American principles and policies in support of press freedom.   Here is just a small sampling — from Angola to Surinam (both this and this), to Pakistan (via YouTube and Facebook); from the Philippines (through a new partnership with the Philippine Press Institute), to an op-ed by a State Department official that was shared via this all-Africa digital media outlet, picked up in Namibia, and tweeted by All-Africa news website Co-founder and Chairman Amadou Mahtar Ba; from an upcoming Twitter Q&A in Rwanda, to a seminar in Luxembourg, and this U.S. Ambassadorial initiative reported in Kyrgyzstan.

World Press Freedom Day is also an important occasion for the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other global organizations to recognize journalists who are “targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom” — in other words, journalists who have been intimidated, persecuted, jailed, or even killed because pf their work.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, through its website HumanRights.gov, also highlights compelling and emblematic cases of journalists who are imprisoned or living under threats, among them Reyot Alemu (left) of Ethiopia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2011.

As the UN General Assembly of 1993 intended, May 3 has become an occasion in most countries for journalists and editors to sit down, sometimes with government officials, to discuss and debate press freedom issues of local concern.  Not infrequently, governments use the occasion to reinforce their own perspectives on the need for restraints and limits on press freedom – or (per our recent blog post Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism) to define journalists’ role in the country’s development.  This debate around media responsibilities vs. media freedom is discussed explicitly or implicitly in many local news stories on World Press Freedom Day, including in this revealing sample of pieces from Uganda,  Nigeria,  Sri Lanka,  IndiaGuyana. and Ghana.

Press freedom is an issue for every day, not just for May 3.  But World Press Freedom Day is a vitally important opportunity to get people talking about what is happening in their countries and what needs to change.  And public diplomacy to promote press freedom is one of the most important kinds of public diplomacy there is.

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About Mary Jeffers

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

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