Pioneering Freedom

The Huffington Post, 2 December 2016.
Opinion piece by Ms Alice Bah Khunke, Minister for Culture and Democracy and Ms Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General.

250 years ago the world witnessed the passage of the first Freedom of the Press Act, enacted by the Swedish Parliament, covering modern-day Sweden and Finland. This was the first act to constitutionally protect press freedom, almost two centuries before the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, some 120 countries have followed this example and enacted similar legislation - ensuring the public's right to know, empowering journalists and bolstering freedoms across the board.

Today, more than ever, we must renew this pioneering spirit.

Freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of information are ends in themselves — the free flow of ideas and opinions, as well as debate and critical examination, creates a wealth of ideas and drives innovation and positive change. They are vital for accountability and transparency. They are pillars of democracy, the rule of law and good governance. They are foundations for more inclusive and sustainable development, and, in empowering every woman and man, they are also forces for intercultural dialogue and peace.

For this, we need wider access to information and enabling media environments. Media pluralism is essential for all voices to be heard, to allow all to participate in sharing the diversity of cultural expressions, opinions, stories and information. This is an engine for widening opportunities to overcome inequalities, while strengthening the foundations of democratic institutions. And these rights must stand both offline and online - the digital revolution must also be a rights revolution.

Safety for journalists is essential, as key users of the right to information, enhancing accountability on behalf of the public and promoting a culture of openness and transparency in Government and across all sectors.

The stakes are high. Over the last ten years, 827 journalists have been killed in the line of duty. In 2014-2015, 59 percent of them were working in countries affected by conflict - and almost 90 percent of them were local journalists. These killings are but the tip of the iceberg of arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment, where female journalists are particularly targeted.

These figures, from UNESCO's most recent report on the safety of journalists, highlight the tragic risks facing journalists. The situation is made worse by impunity. In nine out of ten cases, those responsible for killing journalists are never punished. This creates a vicious circle that poisons all society.

This cannot stand. In 2015, all countries agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - this includes a target "to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements."

Everyone has a role to play in taking this forward. Governments must pursue swift investigations into crimes against journalists and bolster freedom of information legislation. Judicial systems and security services should be trained on freedom of expression. National monitoring and protection mechanisms should be considered. Media organizations must ensure international and local staff have the right training and resources, to enhance their safety. We need every voice to be heard - especially those of women, who remain under-represented in news-making, decision-making, and media ownership. Journalism education must be strengthened, because the highest professional standards of journalism are essential for the news media industry to be seen as representative and credible.

Working with Sweden, UNESCO is spearheading these goals across the world, starting in crisis situations and countries in transition. This is the importance of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which UNESCO is leading for the safety of journalists. We are championing the fight against impunity by raising the red flag every time a journalist is killed and calling for justice. Every year, September 28 marks the International Day for Universal Access to Information. The 250th anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden reminds us of the long road we have travelled to promote freedom of expression. Inspired by Sweden, we need every country to introduce access to information legislation.

Dag Hammarskjold once said that "freedom from fear could be said to sum up the whole philosophy of human rights." Today, more than ever, we must stand up to fear, to allow everyone to seek information and speak out. This is a basic human right - it is a fundamental freedom that strengthens all society.