Speech by Alice Bah Kuhnke at the Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Strengthening the Implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity

Geneva, 29 June 2017.
Check against delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues,

I am truly honoured and proud to be here. I thank UNESCO and the High Commissioner for Human Rights for organising this key initiative and for the invitation. I am also hopeful to see such a broad representation at this meeting, since this is an issue we need to address in broad alliances. My name is Alice Bah Kuhnke and I’m the minister of Culture and Democracy in Sweden, which includes responsibility for media policy, but also to safeguard our human rights.

Freedom of expression is the foundation of every free nation. It makes sure that critical voices can be heard, that our ongoing conversation includes different perspectives, that what we take as a given can be questioned.  Freedom of expression is a basic human right, but it is also a fundamental part of a democratic society. This needs to be repeated.

I believe that the democratic and open society is at risk. Not long ago, freedom of expression and democratic values were being strengthened in many countries where they previously had been limited. The path towards more freedom appeared ever brighter.

But over the last few years we have seen the opposite development in many parts of the world. In the name of countering terrorism, freedom is set aside and prejudice takes its place.

I believe in the rule of law, of safeguarding our freedoms and our human rights, because these are the values that we are defending from terrorists. We as democratic societies should resist, and fight back, not do them a favour.

There are also other obstacles to free speech. As you well know, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders shows an increase in the number of countries where the media freedom situation is very grave and highlights the scale and variety of the obstacles to media freedom throughout the world.

In all, the situation has worsened in nearly two thirds of the 180 countries in the Index.

According to the same index, my country Sweden has climbed to second place. And yes, it is true that we have freedom of speech and free press in Sweden. However, we are also witnessing problems. We are experiencing a harsher debate climate. Journalists, artists, elected officials and authors are threatened and attacked for their works and their opinions. Women journalists are more targeted than others, often simply for being women. The situation has a chilling effect on the possibilities to express opinions, on the public watchdog role of journalists and on public debate in general.

The Swedish government is a feminist government, the first one in the world! Bringing the situation of women journalist to the top of the international agenda is one of my priorities. We need to show greater determination in our attention to women journalists and women media workers. In Sweden and around the world, women face specific forms of threats including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, both online and offline, with deep impact in terms of self-censorship and the ability of these women to carry out their chosen profession.

Journalists and the press are targeted by those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and transparency. Threats against journalists lead to self-censorship which poses a major threat to democracy. In order for the media to be able to fulfil its’ corner stone role in a democracy, journalists, media workers, bloggers, media organizations and individuals must be able to discuss and debate issues freely and safely.

Internet and social media platforms are empowering citizens to fully use their right to freedom of expression and access to information to disseminate opinions, information and news. And we have to bridge the digital divide and realise women’s rights online.New technology is an enabler of democratic development, but this means we have to tackle its negative aspects such as disinformation, propaganda and a harsher debate climate.

Some weeks from now, I will present a national action plan to protect journalists, media workers, artists and elected officials, who use freedom of expression as their most important tool. This plan will present a number of actions by the Government to tackle the negative development we have seen in Sweden over the last few years, to ensure a continued democratic debate.  

Sweden works closely with UNESCO on how to develop and strengthen the UN work to improve the safety of journalists and fight impunity worldwide. In this regard, I would like to highlight the UNESCO’ report on “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development”. As you well know, it is the only UN report that covers these issues in a long term perspective. This becomes even more relevant in the follow-up of the 2030 Agenda. We look forward to the third World Trends report being launched in November. 

Cooperating with UNESCO has also benefitted our domestic work and the Swedish Government encourages other states to do the same. It would give power to the movement if more governments were to adopt national plans for comprehensive action. Sweden encourages others to join this exercise and will be happy to share our experiences.

Dear colleagues, distinguished participants,

At the core of our deliberations today is the need to strengthen our efforts to address the urgent situation that journalists are facing all over the world. It is unacceptable that – still in our days - human rights and fundamental rights continue to be violated and met with impunity in several countries. It is unacceptable that journalists and media workers are being kidnapped, tortured and killed – and the perpetrators are not held accountable.

Women media workers are facing a double vulnerability and are frequently victims of intimidation, threats and violence. We cannot accept impunity for these crimes that in addition to the tragedy in itself also threatens to weaken our society by curbing peoples’ right to freedom of expression and information.

The role of the state is to guarantee and further these rights, not to hamper them or diminish them. Those of us who truly believe in these values have no time to rest; we have to get up on our feet and help others to get up.

We need to constantly remind ourselves what is at stake. The values that once were so crucial in shaping our societies – freedom, human rights, equality and science.  I cannot think of anything more important to fight for, than that. So let us fight together!

Thank you!