29th April 2001
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Press freedom: Where are we now?

52 journalists were murdered in 26 countries in 2000. Over 70 are being held in prison. Over 200 publications were censored in 2000.
By Timothy Baldwin

Ten years ago, on May 3, 1991, African publishers and journalists gathered at a United Nations/UNESCO conference in Namibia drew up a manifesto proclaiming the need for an independent, pluralistic and free press as an essential component in democratic and economic development. This manifesto - the Declaration of Windhoek - called on the international community to outlaw censorship as a grave violation of human rights and on states to provide constitutional guarantees for freedom of the press.

The call did not fall on deaf ears, at least at inter-governmental institutions. Within months, the General Conference of UNESCO had endorsed the Declaration, shortly followed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which formally declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day.

On May 3, 2001, media worldwide will celebrate the tenth edition of World Press Freedom Day. To what extent have the aspirations of the press to freedom been realised, in the past decade?

The dismantling of the former Soviet bloc and the creation of many new democracies in the early 1990s provided momentum and significant potential for a free press worldwide. The role of free and independent media in encouraging transparency, demanding accountability, fighting corruption and creating a stable and healthy economy cannot be overestimated: it is certainly more than coincidence that the new democracies which have accomplished most rapidly the transition to the market economy are also those which, virtually from the outset, established a viable free press.

There were many press freedom advances in the 1990s. In South Africa, for example, the end of apartheid and democratic elections in 1994 led to the abolition of all vestiges of control and censorship. In Indonesia and Nigeria, new civilian governments in 1999 returned their countries to democracy and press freedom, bringing an explosion of new publications. A diversified and relatively vigorous press has also emerged with the new constitutional monarchies of Thailand and Nepal during the 1990s and democratic elections in Benin, Tanzania and Ghana brought similar developments in their wake.

But the 1990s have also proved, if indeed it still needed to be proved, that the 'formal' introduction of democracy provides no guarantees at all for the development of a strong and truly free press, which is a much more laborious and complex process than many imagined.

The authors of the Windhoek Declaration saw very well that the continuation of highly unfavourable economic conditions for the press would be as big an obstacle to the development of a free press as the lack of democracy and legal protection for free media.

While, the political conditions for press freedom have improved significantly in many countries, there has often been a shift towards more subtle forms of repression, persecution or harassment. As it has become more and more unacceptable for governments seeking international recognition and approval to be seen to be crushing free expression and other human rights, more of those with autocratic tendencies have transferred their repression into the hands of the pliant judicial authorities under their control, giving 'legal' approval to what remain as press freedom violations.

At the same time, violence against media employees and their publications and companies has seen a dramatic increase over the decade. The collapse of totalitarian states has often engendered civil conflicts which have brought journalists into the line of fire (the civil war in Tajikistan, for example, in 1993 cost the lives of more than 50 media employees); reporters have frequently been the victims of religious conflicts (57 Algerian press men and women were murdered in the worst years of fundamentalist violence); with an increase in investigative journalism and exposure, mafia, drug traffickers or other criminals, often abetted by politicians, the police or judicial authorities have 'taken over' the job of silencing curious reporters (over 200 have been killed in Latin American democracies since 1990, 100 of them in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico).

What, then, can we expect, or hope for, in the decade ahead? International 'opinion', perhaps for the first time, is clearIy weighted against those governments which continue to violate the human right to free information. This has not yet translated into a real determination and commitment either to encourage real change by helping free press development in foreign aid programmes, or in completely excluding aggressive states from the 'club' of respectable nations with which one can do business. It is on both these fronts that progress is necessary in the ten years ahead of us.

At the same time, conditions have never been more propitious for insisting that all major international events - the Olympics, for example - should only take place in countries which respect human rights, including free expression and free information. Only twice in modern history, in Berlin in 1936 and in Moscow in 1980, has mankind's greatest sporting event taken place in a totalitarian state. As the world's best athletes and sportsmen and women seek Olympic glory in 2008 and beyond, can the international community tolerate again that in close proximity to their triumphs, men and women who have committed no 'crime' other than promoting the fundamental right to express their opinions or circulate free information, are shut away from sight and sound in prison and labour camps?

We think not.

- The writer is Director General, World Association of Newspapers

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